Buena Vista Social Club (1999) Movie Review

The most perplexing question that comes to mind while (and sticks with you well after) watching Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club is just how did these great musicians get so lost in the world, that only now, when most of them are reaching their twilight years, did they finally come to our attention? Indeed, many of the real-life Cuban musicians that makes up the loosely-named Buena Vista Social Club are in their 80s or early 90s. The youngest member is somewhere in his 60s.

There really isn’t a band called the Buena Vista Social Club. The name itself belongs to a music club where many of the musicians once played during the heights of their careers. The club is in Cuba, and has since been ignored and abandoned for decades now. The club itself is a direct allegory on the musicians. Once famous and innovative, they’re now old men living quiet lives, all but forgotten.

The main thrust of Buena Vista Social Club, from what I can gather from the film, is that American musician Ry Cooder traveled to Cuba to meet a friend and discuss plans to record music by some local talents. When musicians who were supposed to be there couldn’t make it, Cooder discovered (or to be more precise, re-discovers) musicians who he had listened to years ago in the States via cassettes that someone had given him. Before long, a group of Cuban old-timers are gathered back together, shakes off the dirt and rust, and turns out an album that becomes a big hit in the States. Long dormant and forgotten even in their native Cuba, the musicians are once again thrust back into the spotlight. Two years later, director Wim Wenders, known for feature-length movies, returns to Cuba with Cooder to do a documentary about these musicians and at the same time discover the hidden slums, alleys, and rich culture of Cuba.

And Buena Vista Social Club The Movie is born.

The movie itself is composed of terrific music played by the musicians, live and recorded, and cuts between a concert by the Club in Amsterdam and the musicians back in Cuba among the people, in their homes, and around the city. The musicians are all given ample opportunity to introduce themselves and talk about their background, how they got to where they were, and reflect on their own deeply personal stories. It’s all very mesmerizing stuff and everything is filmed with digital handheld and stedicam videocameras.

As directed by Wenders, the musician “interviews” become little vignettes, as the camera rarely remains still, and has some pretty innovative and creative moves, like long marches through hallways, through homes, and streets. The result is that you don’t feel like you’re watching men discussing their lives, but watching them relive it before your eyes. Everything becomes crisp and lively and never static and boring. After a while, the men don’t seem to notice that the camera is there and their stories become truly personal and accessible, as if they’re talking to a friend and not a recording equipment.

If there’s one political statement that is made in the film, it’s the terrible repercussions of Cuba’s isolation by the rest of the world. The isolation, as anyone familiar with history and politics well knows, is mostly at the hands of the U.S. Only now, as the economic and cultural sanctions on the island nation begin to weaken, daylight begins to filter into Cuba and vice versa. Cuban music is starting to re-appear on the world stage again, unopposed by the U.S. or the paranoid Cuban government. As a long casualty of Cuba’s rather odd and staunch communist stand, Cuban music and culture as a whole has suffered the most.

This, of course, doesn’t seem to bother the Cuban government very much, who are still insisting to their people in posters and billboards that “The Revolution is Eternal.” It’s ironic that the Cuban government is the only one who believes this, since the people doesn’t seem to care, as most notably shown by the Club musicians’ gleeful and heartfelt reactions during their stay in New York City. Also in New York, the band gets to play at the fame Carnegie hall.

The film weaves interviews with visits back to Cuba, the history of the music, and the concerts in Amsterdam and two years later, in New York City. Everything is done seamlessly and Wenders’ choice to shoot the movie as more of an “experience” instead of a documentary brings vitality and life to the subject, much like these 80 and 90-year-old men does to the Cuban music scene.

Who says age is a hindrance?

Wim Wenders (director) / Wim Wenders (screenplay)
CAST: Luis Barzaga, Joachim Cooder, Ry Cooder, Julio Alberto Fernandez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Carlos Gonzalez, Rub’n Gonzalez, Salvador Repilado Labrada

Buy Buena Vista Social Club on DVD