I like to reminisce about a story I remember seeing in musician Frank Zappa's autobiography about witnessing a famed band leader from the first half of the 20th century begging a concert promoter for a $10 advance on his money for the night, and wondering about his place in music. Whether someone is there to see similar events like this or not is immaterial, because the more subtle point exists about history and its tendency to make the modest or even beloved a bit anonymous. And that's the thing I take away when I see films like Buena Vista Social Club.
The name comes from a social club in Cuba where a group of musicians played, but had since slid into obscurity into the land. Ry Cooder, a longtime musician who had gone on to handle scores for movies, produced an album of the music and asked Wim Wenders, whom he worked with on Paris, Texas, to do a documentary on them. Featuring interviews with the members of the group during recording sessions in Havana, Wenders introduces in performances in Amsterdam and later New York City that show the appreciation the members received from the crowd, as they share their recollections about their homeland, government and music. He also employs occasional use of the Steadicam as he films some of the members performing their music, giving them a bit of a spotlight.
Many of the people in the group are charismatic and interesting figures. Two that were resonant for me were Ibrahim Ferrer, a singer since he was a boy after being orphaned and on the Cuban streets. He enjoyed singing and the joy that it (and the subsequent success) brought to people. A song with him and female vocalist Omara Portuondo, where he wipes away her tears as she clearly is moved by the song she's performing, is a touching moment as they both seem to sense that the adulation is overwhelming but powerful. Compay Segundo is a guitarist who basks in the love of the crowd a little more. He seems to enjoy the life he's lived to that point, having scores of people applaud his work is icing on the cake.
Above all, Wenders and Cooder want to give the musicians as bright a spotlight as possible to discuss themselves, and give them a chance to put in some quality performances in front of the crowds. Once the film makes its way to New York City, it's wonderful to see the musicians bask in the sights and sounds of a world they had only dreamed about. Ferrer even mentions trying to learn some words of English to ‘hold his own,' which for this man in his late 60s to say is charming. Ironically, Ferrer won a Grammy for work on an album a few years later shortly before his death, but was not allowed to come to America (by the U.S. government) to accept the award. In a way that was symbolic about the musicians in that their popularity crossed borders, but their actual being still had to deal with living in and being a citizen of a long-distrusted communist land.
While some of the musicians didn't get the chance to see an open and honest Cuba welcome their achievements and give them the highlights they deserve, Wenders film serves as a document of posterity for their work and their memories. Buena Vista Social Club may have disappeared as a club decades ago, and the people who played in it continue to pass on as the years go by, this film is a worthy work to their talents.The Blu-ray:
Criterion provided an AVC-encoded 1.78:1 transfer for the film which stays true to the original presentation of it. Shot on MiniDV and Digital Betacam cameras at the time, the film didn't have much in the way of image detail and had occasional bouts of instability due to its source (shoot, it was recorded in PAL as opposed to the traditional NTSC format). Nevertheless, colors and flesh tones appear natural without any pushed colors or saturation qualms. Film grain is visible during viewing and image detail in skin poring is present though inconsistent. It's a straightforward high-definition reproduction of the original film.The Sound:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack doesn't blow the proverbial doors off the theater by any stretch of the imagination but still chimes in with a convincing sound experience. Dialogue is consistent and well-balanced in the front of the theater, but it's the musical numbers that are the most effective. Crowd noise is active and immersive, and the low end from the rhythm section of the band is present and clearly discernible to provide balance to the songs. It's a fine soundtrack and accompaniment to the film.Extras:
Wenders' commentary and some additional scenes from the original release are included on this version and are worth exploring if you hadn't by now. He discusses some of the challenges on the production, and his impressions of Cooder and on the music and musicians. It's an average complement to the film. Wenders also does an interview with Criterion (26:15), filmed in December of 2016, where he talks about how Cooder looped him into doing this film, and he shares his thoughts on the musicians and on Cuba in general. He also provides some anecdotes about events in the studio, or things he encountered while filming. Things wrap up with a story about Ferrer which is pretty cool. The additional scenes (4, 22:31) include 2 performances and they are nice to include here. The musicians sit down for separate interviews with a radio personality named Ruben Gonzalez (1:35:11) where they talk about the music, their lives and the impact of the film on same, among others, and played over stills galleries of each participant. Segundo separately appeared on Spanish television show named "Las Claves" where he shares some of the same things as the others did (59:51). The trailer (1:34) completes things.Final Thoughts:
Criterion's version of Buena Vista Social Club gives you more recollections from the filmmaker and musicians, and includes how the film served to benefit their lives or families, which you can't complain about, and adds onto an already solid standard definition disc for those who still have it. Technically the disc is up to the task as well, so what's left is to marvel and enjoy the music and the musicians, which the film and disc do just fine. Check it out if you still haven't.