Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Review #1,128

Director:  Wim Wenders
Plot:  Aging Cuban musicians whose talents had been virtually forgotten following Castro's takeover of Cuba, are brought out of retirement by Ry Cooder, who traveled to Havana in order to bring the musicians together, resulting in triumphant performances of extraordinary music, and resurrecting the musicians' careers.

Genre:  Documentary / Music
Awards:  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Documentary Feature
Runtime:  105min
Rating:  PG

My father purchased the Buena Vista Social Club music compact disc back in the early 2000s, playing it almost every night.  Back then, I was a school-going kid, yet I was entranced by the hypnotic music and the beautiful vocals. 

It is quite unimaginable that a group of old Cuban musicians and singers, famous but forgotten in their homeland, would come together to record what is now the most popular world music album in history, the sounds of Cuba as it were permeating in millions of homes around the world. 

Wim Wenders, the great German filmmaker of Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) fame, and who consistently navigated between dramas and documentaries with utter ease, decided to document these musicians as they put together their album and only live performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. 

The result is something that has gained immeasurable historical significance over the years, much like how Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978) has now become a cultural touchstone in the music documentary landscape.

Wenders' documentary is straightforward; most of the shots are simple, with a few steadicam tracking shots that bring us to certain Cuban spaces, for example, a large cathedral-like hall where we see legendary pianist Ruben Gonzalez practising on an old piano.  Later on, he is joined by a class of young ballet dancers and gymnasts.  I find this scene especially poignant because it captures the timelessness of talent, and the joy of ageless passion. 

Wenders intercuts concert footage quite seamlessly with the street scenes of Cuba, with music as the main link.  The interviews are helpful for us to be acquainted with these musicians, but they aren't necessarily insightful.  We know where they were born, how they were raised, why they decided to play a particular instrument, but nothing deeper about their music process, or the art of collaboration. 

Wenders' choice of breadth rather than depth will be more welcomed by the casual music fan than the die-hard cine-musiphile.  To see these legends on screen is a privilege, for some of them have passed on.  To see them in their element at Carnegie Hall, that is gold.

Verdict:  A pleasant and straightforward culturally-rich music documentary intercut with live concert footage by the great Wim Wenders.


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