Photo by Geraint LewisIN 1996, GUITARIST/PRODUCER RY COODER AGREED to participate in producer Nick Gold's recording project to unite French-Algerian musicians with a Cuban ensemble. Cooder flew to Havana with his percussionist son, Joaquim, to make arrangements and find players for the sessions. When the French-Algerians became unavailable, Cooder decided to stay in Havana anyway and record the band he'd assembled, a veritable treasure-trove of Cuban masters. The result was the album Buena Vista Social Club, which went on to become a worldwide smash, earning a Grammy in 1998 and re-launching the careers of several indispensable artists.
The movie Buena Vista Social Club is Wim Wenders' third collaboration with Cooder. Here, Wenders documents the recording of the album and rehearsals for performances with a tranquil pacing sympathetic to the rhythms of the Cuban son, bolero and descarga. Slowly, he eases us into a structure with a cast of naturals: There's the dapper 92-year-old singer/harmonico player Compay Segundo, with his ever-present cigar and flashy suit, slyly regaling his mates and the camera with tales of Cuba's glorious past and his own lust for life. There's the 73-year-old Ibrahim Ferrer, a guileless charmer who'd been forgotten for years before being plucked off the street (where he was taking his daily singing-walk) to add his honeyed boleros to the Buena Vista recording. And there's Rubén González, another giant miraculously rescued from obscurity. A classically trained pianist of astonishing technique, he sprays fervid, dense flourishes across the jittery Cuban rhythms. González seems completely untaken with himself, as do the others.
The camera circles around these musicians, or walks with them as they sing and play; the men's voice-overs fill you in on their stories. Buena Vista avoids literal politics, as if all that is beside this film's point. Yet Wenders' Havana is plainly decrepit. Stereotypical views of the city abound — boulevards lined with cars from the '50s, mossily rococo embassies, smokers loitering in doorways. The Cubans clearly have little material wealth, but neither do they appear particularly depressed. Wenders has a mordant way of confirming that cameras lie — or invite projection — as often as they tell the truth. He seems to solicit the sense that his camera is a condescending Anglo presence among the primitive hordes, but he foils that expectation by heavily concentrating on the music and the players and their own stories. In fact, three-quarters of the way through, Cooder seems to drop out of the film entirely.
And unlike virtually every other film director, Wenders seems musically perceptive — he doesn't edit to match the music's rhythms, nor do his images compete visually with the music. Instead he makes polyrhythms of sound and image, cutting large, slightly lopsided blocks of space within which the music can express itself on its own terms. Portions of Buena Vista's medium-low-tech cinematography were captured on a Mini DV, which aids the film's unfussy musicality. That one doesn't miss the 35mm or 70mm look (the colors have an appropriately painterly glowing grain) proves again that, given a strong story and sympathetic personalities, a film's technical prowess is usually of minor importance.
You can close your eyes and relish Buena Vista Social Club, for these are great performances by a sensational band, and the recorded sound is luscious. But the players' faces are as revealing as the music: Compay Segundo's twinkling grin, Ibrahim Ferrer's soulful candor, timbales player Amadito Valdés' erratic, twitching focus on elaborate inner rhythms. In the end, Wenders seems to say these Cuban faces are the music.
BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB | Directed by WIM WENDERS | Produced by RY COODER, ULRICH FELSBERG, NICK GOLD and DEEPAK NAYAR | Released by Artisan Entertainment | At Laemmle's Music Hall and Pasadena Playhouse 7