Review: From Cuba with love with 'Buena Vista Social Club'
June 30, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- In 1997, American slide guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder journeyed to Cuba to record an album with the nearly forgotten musicians of the island's musical hey-day. These legendary performers used to set their world dancing and singing at a nightspot known as the Buena Vista Social Club, but their music fell out of style with the advent of the Castro regime and the United States economic embargo.
Cooder was determined to capture the spiritually-linked men and women of the social club in a studio setting one last time, before age and difficult living could silence their considerable gifts forever. The resulting CD, "Buena Vista Social Club" (Atlantic/Nonesuch 1997) became a surprise world music sensation soon after its release.
The new documentary of the same title is directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders. The film follows Cooder on a return trip as he once again records with these still-vibrant musicians (many of them now in their 70s and 80s). He listens to their stories of a music that continues to invigorate their souls, even as the young people around them all but ignore the performers' ceaseless sense of joy and self-discovery.
The film, although a bit over-long, features tons of marvelous, heartfelt music. But the real story lies in the enthusiasm for living that the musicians -- some of whom hadn't picked up instruments for years until Cooder arrived on the scene -- bring to the sessions. The beat of this music follows the pulse of Cuba itself, while remaining fully in synch with our collective human heart.
Wenders' opening sequence sets the endearing tone. One of the musicians, a highly energetic 90-year-old named Compay Segundo, searches for the site of the long-gone club. He knows he can locate the building as soon as he finds some older people, but they're pretty difficult to come by, too.
Eventually, though, a crowd gathers, and a group of the club's former patrons reminisce about their bygone nights of music and celebration. The social club, it seems, was an endless party, one the people who were there will never forget. (Segundo also passes on his secret of eternal youth -- the chicken-neck-and-garlic soup he uses to cure his hangovers.)
Songs and stories
Wenders puts the impoverished city streets and crashing ocean waves to evocative use. But he occasionally gets carried away with his ever-circling camera. An early recording session featuring a sweetly rendered vocal duet is marred by equilibrium-testing swirls around the singers. Thankfully, he tones the theatrics down after a while. This allows the performers to relay their personal journeys in languid, often touching detail.
Some of the mini-biographies don't hold as much fascination as others, but these are surely people who deserve to be heard, even when they aren't filling the air with their richly textured songs of hope and desire. And I do mean desire. The songs' lyrics are often unapologetically sexual -- beautiful women's inviting rear ends get a metaphorical workout on more than one occasion. (During one interview, the ebullient Segundo even brags that his goal is to father a sixth child as he enters his ninth decade. You don't doubt his chances, either.)
A couple of the band members stand out, both as musicians and individuals. Piano player Rubén González hadn't approached a keyboard in a decade prior to Cooder's original recording sessions. When he hunches over to play his rolling accompaniment, his deft, bop-inflected touch belies his 80 years.
Most touching of all, perhaps, is vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, who actually ended up shining shoes on the streets after years as one of the most revered performers in Cuba.
Both Ferrer and Gonzalez display an almost childlike sense of wonder when the entire group plays a sold-out show at New York City's Carnegie Hall. The film's final scene -- in which Ferrer marvels at the glistening Manhattan streets that he always dreamed of seeing but never dared to imagine he would eventually reach -- is moving in the extreme.
Although he's well into the autumn of his years, Gonzalez fully understands that his journey isn't over just yet. He talks of bringing his family with him the next time around. You leave the theater praying that they'll make the journey together one day.
Aside from the sometimes bawdy lyrics, there's nothing but pure heart on display in "Buena Vista Social Club." You don't have to be a Cuban music fan to appreciate the depth these musicians display. Not rated. 101 minutes. In English and Spanish with English subtitles.
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