#632) Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

#632) Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

OR “Havana Good Time”

Directed by Wim Wenders

Class of 2020

The Plot: In 1996, a group of musicians from Cuba’s “musical golden age” of the 1940s and 1950s were recruited by composer and producer Ry Cooder to record “Buena Vista Social Club”, an album of classic Cuban music (cha-cha, mambo, rhumba, etc.) from this long-forgotten era. The album was a worldwide success, and their subsequent performances were captured by filmmaker Wim Wenders. In addition to filming their Amsterdam performances in 1998, Wenders highlights each member of the band, most of them in their 70s and 80s, telling their stories and recapturing the glory of their Cuban youth. The tour culminates in a one night concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which was ultimately the final performance with the original Buena Vista Social Club.

Why It Matters: The entire NFR write-up is cribbed from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who calls the film “the best Win Wenders documentary to date”, and his filmmaking “uncommonly sensitive and alert”.

But Does It Really?: Both Buena Vista Social Club the act and the movie were names I knew of but couldn’t tell you anything about. Like many a concert doc on this list, I enjoyed listening to the music and watching these performers clearly having a blast, but overall I appreciated that this movie was focused on the people rather than the music. You are watching a group who thought their lives were over being given an extraordinary second life with newfound attention and acclaim. These aren’t the likes of Bob Dylan or The Band letting their youthful arrogance get in the way, but rather some long-lost talent letting their age and experience help them savor every moment, and it’s hard not to be moved by their stories. A yes for “Buena Vista Social Club” making the NFR, not only for its outstanding story telling, but also its representation of this Cuban music revival, as well as the work of Wim Wenders.

Shout Outs: A Buzz Lightyear action figure can been seen in Compay’s house when he and Cooder rehearse “Black Bottom”. Movie memorabilia from “The Wizard of Oz“, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Sound of Music” is on display when the band is window shopping in Manhattan.

Everybody Gets One: Wim Wenders was one of many filmmakers to come out of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s. His breakthrough films in America chronicled his fascination with Americana, best exemplified with 1984’s “Paris, Texas” (which has surprisingly not yet made the NFR). “Paris” was Wenders’ first collaboration with muscian Ry Cooder as his composer. While working on the 1997 film “The End of Violence”, Cooder told Wenders about his experience working with Cuban musicians (See “Other notes”), which inspired Wenders to make “Buena Vista Social Club”.

Wow, That’s Dated: The movie doesn’t show its age until the band arrives in New York, in which among the ’90s sights they see are a billboard promoting the 1998 remake of “Godzilla”, and the marquee for “Cats”, which was in year 16 of its 18 year run at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Title Track: Rubén Gonzalez’s piano skills are on display when he performs the movie’s title track, with Ry Cooder on slide guitar.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Buena Vista Social Club” earned Wim Wenders his first Oscar nomination, though the film lost its Best Documentary Feature nod to “One Day in September”, Kevin Macdonald’s film about the tragedy at the 1972 Olympics. (For those of you keeping score, that’s two movies in a row on this blog that lost major awards to a movie about the ’72 Olympics. What are the odds?) Though Wenders has received two additional nominations in this category – for “Pina” and “The Salt of the Earth” – he has yet to win an Oscar outright.

Other notes 

  • BVSC came to be thanks to Ry Cooder and his lifelong work as a “musical archaeologist”, exploring the music of different cultures and finding their common roots. In the early 1990s, Cooder was commissioned by record producer Nick Gold to explore the connection between Cuban music and West African music (the percentage of Cubans with African heritage is anywhere from 30 to 60%). When the African musicians couldn’t travel to Cuba, Cooder gathered 20 musicians within Cuba – many long retired from the music scene – and helped them find their commonalities to record an album together. The resulting album “Buena Vista Social Club” (named after a famous club in Havana) was a worldwide phenomenom, winning a Grammy and launching the tour profiled in this film.
  • This is arguably the most international production on the NFR, with the film being funded by five production companies in five different countries: the United States, Germany, Cuba, France, and the United Kingdom. Thanks to the contributions of L.A. based Kintop Pictures, “Buena Vista Social Club” qualifies as an American film, and therefore eligible for this list.
  • The film begins with BVSC singer Compay Segundo and the crew driving around Havana trying to find the original Buenavista Social Club, which had been closed shortly after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. I appreciate any movie that bothers to stop and asks for directions.
  • I don’t know what kind of camera Wenders and his cinematographer Jörg Widmer are using, but some of these scenes have that ’90s camcorder feel to them. I was not expecting this movie to look like “The Blair Witch Project”.
  • The Amsterdam concert opens with “Chan Chan”, BVSC’s breakthrough hit. Surprisingly, despite the band’s nostalgic appeal, this song was written in the early 1980s.
  • One of my favorite moments is early on when singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo perform the song “Silencio” in the recording studio, filmed with the cameras moving 360 degrees around the two, highlighting the intimacy of the recording. Side note: These recording sessions were for the BVSC follow-up album “Buena Vista Social Club Presents: Ibrahim Ferrer”.
  • I will admit, if you’re going into this movie cold, some research on the history of BVSC and Cuban music would help. I ended up watching this movie twice for this write-up, and I got a lot more out of it the second time after doing some homework.
  • Man, the Amsterdam crowd is lovin’ this. Every song gets recognition applause. It must be the hash.
  • I think the reason there are so many concert docs on this list is because music is universal, and therefore translates better for a wider audience. I also suspect that due to the age of its subject matters, “Buena Vista Social Club” is easily the most mellow concert doc in the NFR.
  • Compay Segundo was 90 years old when they filmed this! I would kill to be that cognitive (and talented) at 90.
  • I’m gonna go ahead and say this is the most cigars in a single NFR film. There’s even a shot of factory workers making cigars, a shot which allegedly was filmed without permission.
  • Whoa, Cuba’s got some king tides going on! Imagine what they’re like now.
  • There’s a lovely scene of Rubén González playing “Begin the Beguine” on piano in a large auditorium, while kids practice gymnastics. Both the artist and the athletes stick the landing.
  • Oh man, Ibrahim just mentioned he was shining shoes – “zapatos” – and now I’m hungry.
  • “El Cuarto de Tula” is fun, until you realize it’s a song about someone’s house being on fire. Singer Pío Leyva is literally shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater! During the song break, Barbarito Torres plays the laúd behind his back! I didn’t know Cuba had a Jimi Hendrix.
  • It’s satisfying to watch Pío win a game of dominoes. Also, is it just me, or does Pío Leyva kinda look like Richard Pryor towards the end of his life?
  • The film ends with Buena Vista Social Club performing at Carnegie Hall. For many of the group, it was their first trip to America. After learning about everyone for the last hour and a half, it’s wonderful seeing their wide eyed wonder at New York (I love the moment where Rubén comments on how small the Statue of Liberty is). There’s something lovely about Ibrahim Ferrer walking Manhattan’s street and declaring what he sees “beautiful”. Turns out these Cubans share Wenders love of Americana. Side note: The first song from their Carnegie set is “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”, which is covered in English as one of my favorite songs, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”.
  • Do you think the Buena Vista Social Club ever got into rumbles with “The Joy Luck Club”? Or would they join forces to fight “The First Wives Club”?

Legacy 

  • The success of “Buena Vista Social Club” (both the album and movie) led to a revival of Cuban and Latin American music, and gave these musicians an unexpected career boost. Sadly, most of the band members featured in this documentary would pass within the decade, with Compay Segundo, Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer all passing away in the early 2000s.
  • The original Buena Vista Social Club folded in 2015, with their final tour being filmed by Lucy Walker for the 2017 documentary/sequel “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios”. Surviving members continue to tour under the name Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
  • Wim Wenders continues to make films, though his focus seems to be shifting away from narrative features and more towards documentaries. His most recent offering is a tribute to his Catholic upbringing: 2018’s “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word”.

Further Viewing: Wim Wenders best film that’s not eligible for this list: 1988’s “Wings of Desire”, a romantic fantasy filmed in his native Germany, considered one of the greatest films of the decade. You gotta love a movie where Peter Falk plays himself!

Listen to This: Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled 1997 album was added to the National Recording Registry this year! The band’s historical context is given, as well as an interview with Ry Cooder, and an essay by Ry Cooder expert Fred Metting.

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