Buena Vista Social Club

Director: Wim Wenders
Screenplay: Wim Wenders (original concept by Nick Gold)
Features: Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ry Cooder, Joachim Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Rubén González, Orlando “Cachaíto” López, Amadito Valdés, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Barbarito Torres, Pío Leyva, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, Juan de Marcos González
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1999
Country: Germany / U.S. / U.K. / France / Cuba
Buena Vista Social Club Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Buena Vista Social Club

The title of Wim Wenders’s documentary Buena Vista Social Club refers to a Havana social club that that flourished in the 1930s and ’40s and became a significant hang-out for prominent Cuban musicians to mix and mingle and play. Largely forgotten for decades, its name was resurrected in 1997 by Cuban bandleader and folklorist Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder for an album they recorded of traditional Cuban music played by many of the musicians who had frequented the club at the height of their prominence, but had since sunk into obscurity. Most of the songs and musicians who played them never achieved substantial (or, in some cases, any) recognition outside of their native country, and the combination of González and Cooder’s album and Wenders’s documentary two years later helped expose their artistry to the rest of the world for the first time.

It is telling that, early in Wenders’s film, Cooder and Cuban trova guitarist Compay Segundo walk the street of the Havana neighborhood where the club was located, and find that none of the old-timers who still live there and frequented the club can agree on where, exactly, it was located. Like the music and musicians who made the club popular, its memory had been largely wiped out by the ravages of time and inattention, which makes Wenders’s film an absolutely essentially interruption of the potentially tragic historical decay that might have led to its being forgotten forever. The exact physical location where the musicians played may never be agreed upon, but the musicians themselves will be forever present in Wenders’s film, playing the songs that once made them famous and reclaiming a heritage that was on its way to obscurity.

Buena Vista Social Club originated with Nick Gold, the head of London’s World Circuit Records, who had initially tasked Cooder with recording the Cuban music by the original players. The film uses a fairly conventional structure, introducing us to more than a dozen Cuban musicians (most of whom were, at the time, in their 70s and 80s, with one almost 90) via a mixture of direct interviews in which they relate their histories and footage of them walking the streets of their neighborhoods and performing in various venues, including Havana’s EGREM studios and a concert in Amsterdam. We learn bits and pieces of their lives and how they fit into the larger history of Cuban music, but Buena Vista Social Club is nothing like a Ken Burns-style documentary that aims to convey large swaths of information. Wenders, who like his New German Cinema contemporary Werner Herzog has slid fluently throughout his career between feature films and documentaries, is content to let the musicians speak for themselves as much or as little as they want to and make their music the film’s centerpiece.

In the second half of the film, the musicians travel to New York to perform a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, which marked the first time Cuban musicians had traveled to and performed in the U.S. in decades (their wonderment at being in the Big Apple is infectious, and their ability to tick off the names of various celebrities like Charles Chaplin in response to bobble-heads they see in a store window is testament to the fluidity of popular culture across various borders). Despite the minimal information we get about them, each of the musicians immediately strikes a unique impression, conveying a tremendous sense of history and culture and artistry. In some ways, Buena Vista Social Club is a frustrating experience because it leaves you wanting to hear so much more, but given the reasonable limits of the feature documentary format, Wenders packs in an impressive amount of experience and, most importantly, secured the place of these amazing musicians in the larger scope of history.

Buena Vista Social Club Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioSpanish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Audio commentary from 1999 by director Wim Wenders
  • Video interview with Wenders
  • Interview from 1998 with musician Compay Segundo
  • Radio interviews from 2000 featuring musicians Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, and others
  • Additional scenes
  • Trailer
  • Essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 18, 2017

    The simple truth is, Buena Vista Social Club is never going to look very good. For issues related to economics, flexibility, and portability, Wenders shot almost exclusively on consumer-grade digital video cameras, which in the late 1990s produced relatively low-resolution images. Criterion has given the film a new high-definition digital transfer from the original D2 NTSC master tape, which was used to produce the 35mm negative for striking theatrical prints, so what you see here is as good as it’s going to get. The image is perfectly reflective of the limitations of the medium in which it was made, with jagged edges on objects and people in the background, somewhat flat color reproduction, and lack of fine detail. The soundtrack, I am happy to report, is much more impressive, with Criterion’s 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix, which was transferred from the original digital audio master files, really bringing the unique music to life. The interview scenes are largely limited to the front soundstage, but the surrounds come alive during the concert sequences, drawing us deep into the musical experience. The supplements are a nice mix of the old and the new, with Wenders’s audio commentary from the 1999 DVD making a repeat appearance along with a 1998 hour-long video interview with musician Compay Segundo and radio interviews from 2000 featuring musicians Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, and others. There are also four additional scenes that didn’t make the final cut of the film (running about 20 minutes total), a trailer, and a new 26-minute video interview with Wenders.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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