5-Word 365 #189 – Buena Vista Social Club

After the recent disruption of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (which you can catch up on here if you missed it) it’s back to the usual theme weekends here at 5-Word. Saturday means documentaries, and I felt like something a bit lighthearted today.

Buena Vista Social Club

Let’s all move to Cuba.

Wim Wenders and his crew capture live performances of the Buena Vista Social Club band in Amsterdam and New York City, as well as interviews with the musicians in their native Havana.

In 1996, legendary American guitarist and film composer Ry Cooder (Southern Comfort, Paris, Texas) travelled to Cuba to record with a group of aging local musicians who had been instrumental – pardon the pun – members of the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana back in the 1940s and 50s. The album these sessions produced ended up winning a Grammy in 1997 and the band were invited to Amsterdam in 1998. Cooder had scored a handful of Wim Wenders’ movies and the two were friends so Wenders came to the Amsterdam gig with a crew, then on to Cuba to meet and film the band members as they prepared for their Carnegie Hall appearance.

As shot by frequent Wenders collaborator and steadicam maestro Jörg Widmer, this film beautifully captures both the personalities of these long-forgotten musicians and their stunning stagebound prowess. His constantly moving camera, even in the interviews, mirrors the rhythm of the music as well as the ever-onwards passing of time that threatened to leave these men in its wake. The movie has been edited so that the interview pieces are interwoven within the songs themselves instead of just used as breaks in the performances. It is important to note that this is not a concert film, where interview footage is used to punctuate the music. For Buena Vista Social Club, both are given equal importance in Brian Johnson’s edit. As the songs focus on each performer in turn, so does the film, as the men tell Wenders about themselves and the history of the original club as well as other influential and memorable musicians who are no longer around. We also get some moments of the men – many of whom have never left Cuba – exploring New York before the Carnegie Hall concert. Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit manipulated during this segment, as if the film was making a political point about the poor, naive Cubans coming to the big city for the first time and being overwhelmed by the wonder of the USA. The moments captured seemed genuine and the banter between the men was as good-naturedly snippy as it had been in Cuba, but it came close to leaving a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

If I’m half as cool as this guy when I’m 70, that deal with the devil would have been entirely worth it.

Of course all films like this will have their breakout stars as this one is no exception. Soft-spoken singer Ibrahim Ferrer became the poster boy for the band right up until his passing in 2005 at age 78, and he features prominently here alongside pianist and raconteur Rubén González and the 90-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, who was also a prominent composer in Cuba and wrote several of the groups songs. No matter their age or how much screen-time they get, every member of the Club is hugely energetic and excited about bringing this music to the wider world. And what music it is.

I had heard of both the film and the album when each was first released. I have had the BVSC album for years but for some reason that I’m not even aware of I never got around to watching the film before today. I’m glad that situation has now been rectified, even if I was thirteen years late to the party. My Amazon* account has just been tapped for a couple of the Club members’ follow-up solo albums, to make up for my tardiness.

*Other online music retailers are available. Some of them are even quite good.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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