Like the vintage hand-tinted postcards it resembles, Wim Wenders’s film about the Buena Vista Social Club— the dozen or so aging Cuban singers and musicians who recorded the mellifluous million-selling album of the same name— feels like a timeless blast from the past. Assembled in 1997 by guitarist Ry Cooder for Havana recording sessions, the Buena Vista Social Club is a stylish, distressed signifier for the nostalgic glories of prerevolutionary Cuban culture.
Life before Castro “wasn’t what it is now,” says 72-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer, the famously rediscovered son and bolero singer who shined shoes for a living prior to hooking up with Cooder. “It was harder.” Aside from Ferrer’s comment, however, and some revolutionary graffiti, the film maintains an apolitical distance from the strained Cuba-U.S. relationship. As it happens, the Club has skirted the U.S. government’s cultural embargo more successfully than any other Cuban musicians to date.
In making their case for a naive campesino music that transcends ideology, Wenders and producer Cooder film the Club’s key members in isolation as they reminisce in fabulously dilapidated art-deco bars. Since nobody seems to know where the original Buena Vista Social Club was located (92-year-old, cigar-puffing string player Compay Segundo pokes around a Havana neighborhood for it in one amusing sequence), the film serves as a sentimental journey back into its heyday. Emotions run thick when Ferrer sings the bolero “Silencio” in a recording studio with 69-year-old Omara Portuondo, and then thicker when Wenders cuts directly to the group’s first public performance of the song, in Amsterdam.
Self-effacing to a fault (apart from his signature slide-guitar accents),
Cooder is known as much for his film scores (such as Wenders’s Paris, Texas) as for his collaborations with such musicians as Mali’s Ali Farka Toure and India’s Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. But the film sheds little light on the crosscultural creative process— it could have included more informal studio give-and-take.
Buena Vista Social Club makes a sharp turn when the band visits New York for a final proud and exciting concert at Carnegie Hall (I vividly recall 77-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez basking as long as possible in well-deserved adulation). Wenders follows three of the musicians as they wander down Seventh Avenue after the concert, chatting about “the good life” they find reflected in tacky souvenir statues of American presidents. “If we’d followed the way of possessions,” Ferrer had said back in Havana, “we would have been gone a long time ago.” Possibly. Having followed the directions to Carnegie Hall so well, they only really seem lost after they’ve played there.