Buena Vista Social Club, The (1999): Wenders Exhilarating Music Docu

One of the best non-fiction works of the 1990s, Wim Wenders’ exhilarating documentary The Buena Vista Social Club nominally concerns Ry Cooder’s adventurous trip to Cuba.  But the feature is much more than that: it’s a tribute to a great generation of musicians and to a great (largely bygone) music genre.

Ry Cooder had collaborated with Wenders before, in 1984 for “Paris, Texas” (winner of the top award at the 1984 Cannes Film Fest), for which he created .the memorable wailing slide guitar theme.

In 1996, he went to Havana to track down and interview some of legendary ‘soneros’ musicians of the pre-Castro era, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The next year he went back, this time with director Wenders.

The result was the album Buena Vista Social Club, featuring such colorful characters as the 90-year-old singer-guitarist Compay Segundo, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, baritone Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, known as “the Cuban Edith Piaf.”

Conveying their genius, vitality and energy, Wenders shows these exceptional musicians in their hometown, following them into their hang-outs — the cafes, clubs and even living rooms.  Inevitably, we observe the disparity between desolate and depressing Havana and the still joyous personalities and music of the performers.

The docu builds up momentum towards concerts in Amsterdam and especially New York’s Carnegie Hall, the climax of the film as well as climax of their international careers.  The musicians, some frail and well into their 80s, are simply overwhelmed by the emotional response of their varied audiences.

“In Cuba, music flows like a river,” according to Ry Cooder, who adds “Music is like a treasure hunt; you dig and dig and sometimes find something.”

Pursuing this metaphor, Wenders said he wished to make a film that would “just float on this river, not interfering with it, just drifting along.”

The docu had huge impact.  First, the album became a best-selling phenom in the music world, winning a Grammy award.  It also stirred interest in this kind of music all over the world.

“Buena Vista Social Club won the Best Nonfiction Award from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle.

Running time: 105 Minutes.