“I’ve been making records for about 35 years and I can tell you, you never know what the public’s gonna go for. This turned out to be the one they liked the best, I like it the best.”
— Ry Cooder
The Criterion Collection release of 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club is a welcome addition to their meticulously remastered and repackaged catalog. A Wim Wenders documentary that follows the success of the 1998 album of the same name, specifically through the recording of a solo album for one of the group’s breakout stars, Ibrahim Ferrer, the film intersperses performances with interviews in ways that bring another dimension to the songs and its performers.
Buena Vista Social Club, the album, came together through Ry Cooder’s interest in recording some of the classic Cuban musicians performing songs from the ’40s and ’50s. As Cooder discovered more and more musicians of the era were still alive — though in their 70s, 80s, and 90s — they were still able to sing and play with the skill and vitality of performers intimately connected with the material, and the album came to life. Its success quickly prompted solo releases of some of the key players, such as Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, Rubén González, and Compay Segundo. Culminating in sold-out concerts in Amsterdam and New York City, their triumph feels especially earned after such a long time, and after many of the players had given up on music as a career.
Wenders beautifully intersperses images of concert footage with more intimate performances of the same song. The differences are both illuminating and affecting and are perfectly exemplified in Ferrer and Omara Portuondo’s gorgeous opening duet in the studio on “Does Gardenias” and their emotional concert performance of the same song. The feeling behind the execution of the song is always palpable, regardless of location or audience. Shifting from the concert stage to a home, or studio, or the streets, brings the songs to light in different, though again, affecting ways. Often when performing as a group for a large adoring audience the pure joy of the moment comes through in the concert footage, while the smaller moments allow for more room for the music to breathe.
Much as in a traditional documentary, each of the main players gets the opportunity to say a little bit about themselves and their connection to the music, but they’re not uniformly filmed in talking head segments. Ochoa walks along train tracks fingering his guitar playing “El Carretero”; Portunondo starts an impromptu duet of “Veinte Años” with a stranger on the street; Orlando “Cachaito López plucks an upright bass in an empty dance hall; González plays in a Cuban gym, surrounded by child gymnasts and ballerinas. These choices highlight how immersed these musicians are in their community and how collaborative making music can be, even with non-musicians.
Their mini-biographies are frequently peppered with anecdotes about learning an instrument, or singing along as a child. González lights up when mentioning the first time he saw a piano (“When I saw that instrument, I went crazy.”), while Portuondo reminisces about dueting with her well-known baseball player father as a little girl. Their stories emphasize the inherent connection they all seem to have felt with music at a young age. That they’re so easily able to call up those moments, and still feel the joy they must have felt at the time, speaks to the ongoing connection they have to music.
Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo in Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Wenders is, for the most part, an unobtrusive presence. Cooder’s long friendship and working relationship with Wenders made their teaming up to make this film a natural fit for the two, and it’s unquestionably a successful one. If there was one criticism to be made of the documentary (and this is also pointed out by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in his included essay in the Criterion release), it’s that Wenders and Cooder cast Cooder’s son, Joachim as a almost equal to the musicians at the heart of Buena Vista Social Club. Both Cooders accompany the Cuban musicians, although they’re arguably unnecessary, on the recordings and in concert. While Ry Cooder is an accomplished musician with decades of experience and an excellent reputation, Joachim is a drummer and percussionist who’s benefited from his father’s reputation. He frequently collaborates with his father, but he’s not in the same category as the Cuban musicians he sits alongside in the documentary, making the time spent on him in the film feel wasteful when it could’ve been replaced with some of the additional scenes included in the Criterion release.
There’s no question that Buena Vista Social Club belongs in the pantheon of essential music documentaries. It’s not an exhaustive history of the music or even of the musicians, but it captures the ineffable very well. In often choosing atmosphere over the straightforward, the film creates an experience that connects quickly and easily with the viewer in a way that a linear narrative wouldn’t be able to achieve. Scenes of contemporary Cuba combined with intimate performances contrast beautifully with concert footage in Europe and the United States. These are consummate professionals with a deep connection to the music they love, and it comes through time and time again in Buena Vista Social Club.
That many of these musicians have since passed away cements the importance of capturing them at the time. Whether playing their signature “Chan Chan”, or reminiscing about their early days, or cracking jokes for the camera, the Buena Vista Social Club vibrates with life. Fortunately, their songs, their performances, and their stories are timeless.