Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Buena Vista Social Club is a 1999 music documentary about the music of Cuba, rediscovered and popularised by the American musician Ry Cooder. The name is derived from the group of musicians and singers Cooder assembled in 1996 to record an album of Cuban music, also called Buena Vista Social Club. The film is a blend of concert footage as well as interviews with many of the performers. The album's success together with the documentary propelled Cuban music back from the brink and many of the original musicians still tour, passing the music onto a younger generation. The film would go on to earn more than $23 million worldwide as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. It would be followed in 2017 with Buena Vista Social Club: Adios.
What's It About?
Ry Cooder, a friend of director Wim Wenders, had long had an appreciation for Cuban music before being invited by music producer Nick Gold to Havana to record an album. Travelling from Mexico to the island of Cuba, they quickly discovered that many of the famous musicians of the past - Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Rubén González and so on - were still alive. Cooder persuaded many of them out of retirement to record an album called Buena Vista Social Club, named after the long-forgotten nightclub in Havana where many of them originally performed.
While the album becomes a huge success, many of the performers reflect on their lives and careers which faded into obscurity after the revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro. Delighted to once again to heard and appreciated, the film takes them on arguably their biggest journey - to New York, to perform at the legendary Carnegie Hall.
What's to Like?
Without question, the film belongs to the assembled talents who deliver a powerful performance of a largely forgotten form of music. The sound is instantly recognisable as Cuban, combining elements of rumba, bolero and danzón that is simply impossible to resist. The subtitled lyrics are a great help, demonstrating the romance and passion behind many of the songs. Each performer gets their own moment in the spotlight but the film focuses on the efforts of three in particular - the charismatic Segundo who, in his own words, is trying for his sixth child in his nineties, the Yoda-like González who is dismissive of his own impact on Cuban music and the irrepressible Ferrer, found shining shoes on the streets by Cooder after he had fallen out of love with singing.
Of course, the songs are unfamiliar but you sense their history, especially after Portuondo gently weeps after performing one of her songs that she used to sing with her mother - and indeed, with passers-by on the street as she walks around Havana. And if you've never been, the film also highlights Cuba itself and almost feels like a tourist video at times. By showing the dilapidated streets and communities alongside this traditional music, you feel like you've travelled back in time to a point before political turmoil caused such upheaval. Although it must have been tempting to treat the recording as one final defiant performance before disappearing altogether, every one of the musicians and singers simply looks and feels happy to be performing at all and you empathise with them, smiling as they smile and swaying in mellow rhythms.
- The Buena Vista Social Club album was recorded in just six days at the EGREM Studios in Havana, once owned by RCA. Most of the equipment there had remained unchanged since the 1950s.
- The album had phenomenal success in Europe, topping the album charts in Germany and reaching the top 10 in many other countries. It is still the second biggest-selling Latin album in US history.
- Sadly, the success came too late for some of the performers. Segundo and González passed away in 2003 and Ferrer died in 2005 after he had recorded his first solo album in 1999 and even recorded with Gorillaz.
What's Not to Like?
Frustratingly, Wenders seems somewhat disinclined to allow us to hear a song all the way through. As the film flicks between concert footage and interview, he doesn't want to wait for an appropriate pause and just jumps from one to the other. I don't have an issue with wanting to hear what the performers have to say - at times, it gives a fascinating insight behind the music and gives it a real context - but would it have hurt to let them finish a song before doing so?
Other than making me want to jump onto a plane and jet off to Cuba, the film is also guilty of possibly over sentimentalising the performers. As they head to New York and prepare to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall, we see them wander in awe around the streets of the Big Apple and this lays their ignorance of us bare, whereas our ignorance of their culture is hidden behind the fourth wall. You're obviously happy that these performers, many of whom had long given up their dreams, are finally being given the respect and adulation they deserve. But I wanted to hear more of their lives, both before and after Castro's rise to power. I'd have liked another half-hour or so to hear their stories and not necessarily Cooder's, who seems delighted to be riding their coat-tails all the way to the bank.
Should I Watch it?
Buena Vista Social Club is an enthralling look at music and a way of life sadly fading from memory, suddenly revived beyond their wildest dreams. The music is fabulous, the interviews are interesting and often amusing and the island itself looks like a forgotten corner of civilisation, left behind by the rest of the world. I just wished Wenders had as much respect for the performers as Cooder does, allowing their music room to breathe and their thoughts time to emerge.
Great For: Latino viewers, Cuba, Latino-themed restaurants looking for backing music
Not So Great For: people who don't like "world music", history buffs
What Else Should I Watch?
Not being of a follow-up to this, I admit to being slightly wary of Buena Vista Social Club: Adios because it was made without the involvement of either Wim Wenders or Ry Cooder, the spiritual heart of the project. Directed instead by Lucy Walker, the film follows the group's final tour ending with a date in Havana itself. The surviving members of the group including Portuondo, Ochoa and Mirabal talk about their personal highlights as well as reflect on the loss of their friends and fellow performers.
It seems as though music documentaries seem to either be predominantly concert footage such as the one-off return of Led Zeppelin chronicled in the epic Celebration Day or in-depth analysis of a musician or group's output like Peter Bogdanovich's obsessive 4-hour look at Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' Runnin' Down A Dream. So long as the music is good, I'm not too fussed either way but here's another one worthy of your consideration. It Might Get Loud is a love letter to the guitar and its effect on modern music. It does this by inviting Jimmy Page, Jack White and U2's The Edge to a studio to discuss their own styles of playing as well as encouraging them to have a bit of a jam which, as you can imagine, sounds rather good...
Vocals & tres
Vocals & guitar
Vocals, congas, claves & bongos
Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez
Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal
Wim Wenders *
Release Date (UK)
17th September, 1999
Academy Award Nomination
Best Documentary Feature
© 2018 Benjamin Cox