The Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

D: Wim Wenders

As much a Wim Wenders film as a documentary about the personalities behind the successful recording of Cuban music which lends it its title, The Buena Vista Social Club is a thoughtful meander through the haunted landscapes of a faded era in which characters contemplate the uncertainties of fate, geography and self-expression. Shot mostly on Digital Video, Wenders' film exhibits a great freedom of movement and superlative access to recording sessions and concerts featuring former greats of the Cuban scene reunited for the historic series of concerts resulting from the album. He blends interviews explaining the motivation behind recordings and performances with sequences depicting either the recording or live performance of the piece in question, neatly taking us on a journey through the almost lost history of the musicians and singers themselves. With some additional location work and images of contemporary Cuba, he evokes a particular place with a paradoxically fluid timescape, all backed by the music itself, which for many will prove the selling point of the picture in the first place.

As a documentary, the film is most interesting in terms of how Wenders approaches exposition. Instead of presenting information in large chunks, he immerses us in a world of sound and vision, memory and music in which the details of how and why the project came together are incidental. We do eventually get the story from Ry Cooder, but only just before the film's climactic sequence in Radio City where the performance of Cuban music in the bosom of capitalism is given political resonance by the flying of the Cuban flag. It nonetheless covers all of its bases and provides both insight and an opportunity to observe the faces, bodies and gestures of people in their natural environment and in a state of artistic bliss which all of them seem to savour.

It is not a film for casual viewers however. Unlike the breakthrough documentaries Roger & Me and Hoop Dreams, there are few simple pleasures here to guide you to the meat of the project. Wenders is an uncompromising visionary at the best of times, and the film is best suited to fans of his work and those who will be able to enjoy it for the music alone. Fans of the album will find it even more fascinating, and it is a very interesting work of non fiction film. It is unlikely to win a crossover audience however in spite of this, and remains cautiously recommended to those predisposed to its evident qualities.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.