Buena Vista Social Club

In almost every number, Cuba is visually present. All are beautifully intercut to emphasize Cuba’s culture, its national identity, in the songs.

Buena Vista Social Club

Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo, Ry Cooder, Rubén González
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: G
Release Date: 2010-01-12

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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.