Perhaps the greatest perk of living in an absurdly material-crazed consumer culture is that it’s very hard to lose track of music and movies you like. While years tick away and you’re off collecting new favorites, somebody, somewhere is working on a way to repackage, re-release, and ultimately, resell everything.
In this spirit, the good people at Lionsgate have come up with a “music-themed DVD line” they’re calling Music Makers, and Buena Vista Social Club, thankfully, is back. If not all of the four DVDs in the line are beloved classics (Beyond the Sea, we’re looking in your direction), fans of Wim Wenders’ 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary can rejoice, and the movie and, as importantly, the music, gets exposure to new audiences.
The film is as radiantly charismatic and endearing upon re-viewing as it was immediately following its initial release, and although many of the stars—notably, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Rubén González—didn’t survive the ‘00s, their screen presence feels like a joyous toast to life.
Opening on photos taken by Alberto Korda, the man who took the iconic shot of Che Guevara, and Korda’s description of images captured from the revolution through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Wenders instantly provides the movie with a social and historical context. Then, having established that context, Wenders moves forward, allowing the personalities of his subjects and the music they create to form his film.
Buena Vista Social Club is perfectly structured to provide viewers with both a feeling of intimacy with the performers and a sense of personal connection to the music. Wenders calls his work a “musicumentary” on the disc’s commentary and in its “production notes”, and as cloying a coinage as that is, he’s right that the movie is more than either a concert film or a documentary about a band. One by one, Cuba’s greatest musicians introduce themselves, usually telling a story about their childhood or how they came to become musicians, and then Wenders cuts into a number that highlights that musician’s performance.
By first presenting the performer’s backstory, Wenders offers an otherwise inexpressible account of what this music has meant to these people and this culture. The best example features Omara Portuondo recalling singing the same songs she sings with the Buena Vista Social Club when she was a little girl. Wenders cuts to Portuondo walking down a Havana sidestreet, crowded with people gawking either because she’s Omara Portuondo or because she’s being followed by a camera crew.
She’s singing “Veinte Años” as she walks along, and she catches the eye of a woman in pink, significantly younger than Portuondo. The woman begins to sing along, and they walk side-by-side, singing the song. Wenders cuts to the concert footage, Portuondo finishes the number with the accompaniment of the band and, to match its enjoyment of the music, the audience has an understanding of what Cuban folk music means.
Often, like with “Veinte Años”, the songs are presented through an amalgamation of footage shot on the streets of Havana, in somebody’s home, in the Egrem Studio, or in a packed concert hall in Amstardam, but it never feels like a performance is interrupted. Rather than wishing Wenders would go back to the previous setting, I found myself fully engaged wherever the movie went. In almost every number, Cuba is visually present. There are shots of waves misting the Malecón, of palm trees swaying in a tropical breeze, of cigar rollers focused on their labor. All are beautifully intercut to emphasize Cuba’s culture, its national identity, in the songs.
Wenders’ crew also catches some of the musicians in more candid moments, and the results are fantastic. Pio Leyva beats Manuel “Puntillita” Licea at Dominoes in the Egrem courtyard during a break in a recording session and boasts, “You may be number one at singing, but I’m the best around at Dominoes.” Later, when the duo face down a cardboard cutout of John Wayne on the sidewalk in New York, it’s impossible not to smile.
In addition to a five-track CD with music from its Music Makers line, Lionsgate has included a number of special features on the DVD, such as a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, some extra footage of Korda at his home, full performances (presented straight through, in the location where the sound was recorded) of two songs, an extra interview, and the original theatrical trailer (which, incidentally, is a great trailer).
There are also “About the Musicians” and “About the Filmmakers” pages, and a few screens’ worth of “production notes”, which offer a description of how the movie came to be. The disc lacks an interview with Ry Cooder in which he would presumably talk about his experience coming to Cuba and finding these artists, but the movie tells that story.
For anybody who would rather hear Wenders’ voice than Ibrahim Ferrer’s, he does provide a commentary track. His remarks are somewhat informative, but in a documentary like this one, they’re a tad unnecessary; while Ferrer talks about growing up as an orphan, Wenders says, “His life story is really amazing”. We know, Wim. You showed us.