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Germany/ USA/UK/France/Cuba 1999
Directed by
Wim Wenders
105 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Buena Vista Social Club

Synopsis: Guitarist and musicologist Ry Cooder produced a Grammy award winning album of songs (The Buena Vista Social Club) by aging but forgotten Cuban musicians. In 1998 he returned with son Joachim to record the solo album of one of the singers Ibrahim Ferrer. What ensues is a visual record of the band making music in Havana, Amsterdam and then finally in Carnegie Hall interwoven with the members' reflections on their lives and music.

Ry Cooder's long-standing associate Wim Wenders (Cooder provided the enormously successful soundtrack for Paris, Texas) has very little visible influence on this film which sticks closely to concert footage and video portraiture, largely shot with a Steadicam (making the film a somewhat visually-disorienting experience as much of it is shot at close range, and even sometimes exacerbated by 360 degree revolutions of the subject). Cooder himself remains resolutely low profile, providing an explanatory voice-over but determined to give the Cubans their moment in the sun.

The interweaving of the individual profiles with the collective performances is skilfully done and a fitting mirror to the character of the lambent music itself. Somewhat reminiscent of the Gypsy Kings phenomenon of the 80s the discovery of these wonderful musicians is a revelation for the jaded ears of over-produced contemporary Anglo-American music. As Cooder's son, Joachim, lucidly points out, what is so special about this music is its pervasiveness in the lifeblood of the Cubans themselves, powerful and energetic but never grandstanding, perfect ensemble music realized with perfect ensemble playing (whilst Joachim's percussion is excellent, ironically, I found Ry's slide guitar intrusive).

The musicians themselves are engaging characters and the contextualising of the music in Havanan society and culture is done lightly without attempting to be illustrative or didactic, both aspects, whilst formally external, being important to our appreciation of the music. In that respect this is a film you should see before buying the CD.




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