Buena Vista Social Club at 25: Wim Wenders’ Glorious Musical Salute

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Buena Vista Social Club at 25: Wim Wenders’ Glorious Musical Salute

Once upon a time, there was a collective of aging Cuban musicians who went by two different names. As the Afro-Cuban All Stars, they released a 1997 album called A Toda Cuba le Gusta. It featured various forms of Cuban music, including bolero, salon, danzon, rumba, etc. But when they released an album, also in ‘97, by their other name, the Buena Vista Social Club, that’s when they became stars.

Both the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club were dreamed up by Nick Gold, an executive at London-based world-music label World Circuit Records, who called on Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González to direct the ensemble. Gold also called on American guitarist/composer Ry Cooder to produce the music for the Buena Vista Social Club album. So, what’s the difference between the two? While All Stars was basically formed as a revival of the son conjunto sound, Social Club (named after a members’ club/music venue that was located in the Buenavista quarter of Havana in the 1940s) also showcased the popular styles of the time, but in a mellower fashion. Basically, Buena Vista Social Club was the Parliament to Afro-Cuban All Stars’ Funkadelic.

The critical and commercial success of Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled album overshadowed A Toda Cuba le Gusta, as Buena Vista Social Club went on to win the 1998 Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album. (A Toda Cuba le Gusta was nominated for a Best Tropical Latin Performance Grammy.) The ensemble would also be the subjects of their own feature-length documentary, which came out 25 years ago this week.

German filmmaker Wim Wenders followed his old friend and collaborator Cooder (he provided the scores to Wenders films Paris, Texas and The End of Violence) to Cuba, capturing Cooder and his drummer/percussionist son Joachim taking in the vibrant music and culture while also creating new tunes with these talents. Even though Wenders is armed with a Sony DigiBeta cam and a digital SteadiCam, the director gets some priceless images of these artists on-stage, off-stage and, of course, in their homeland. 

The performances bounce back-and-forth between the recording of the songs, and live performances of those songs during a show in Amsterdam. Wenders practically twirls around the musicians with his camera, literally getting swept up in the romantic, collaborative beauty being created. In the first 15 minutes, we get an instant hit of that when vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo record a dreamy rendition of “Chan Chan.” It’s even more moving when they perform the song live, as Ferrer and Portuondo, who is crying by the end of this, do a lovely slow dance during the bridge.

Buena Vista Social Club is less a historical chronicle of the titular club and more of a musical hangout movie. Wenders gives these once-aspiring musicians their long-overdue time to shine. Between the recording and live performing, Wenders has each one performing in an isolated location—a stockyard, a banquet hall, the street—literally providing a space for them to do their magic.

It’s during these moments that we get to know who these people are and where they came from. There’s Francisco Repilado—also known as Compay Segundo—a suave, sharp-dressed vocalist/tres player who used to light up his grandmother’s cigars when he was a lad. (“So I guess you could say I’ve been smoking for 85 years,” he says, laughing.) There’s Eliades Ochoa Bustamante, a cowboy hat-wearing country boy who came from a family full of guitar players. There’s Rubén González, a pianist we also catch performing for a group of kid ballerinas. These cats discuss how they started their musical journey at a young age, getting the itch to perform before they hit their preteens, sometimes playing on the street for change. They also delve into what they had to do when music wasn’t supporting them or their family. Ferrer, whom Cooder describes as “a Cuban Nat King Cole,” did everything from shine shoes to move trash to sell lottery tickets. 

Wenders gives these former nobodies the triumphant, feel-good happy ending they deserve when they touch down in New York to perform at Carnegie Hall for the movie’s big finale. Before they blow the roof off Carnegie, Wenders trails the members as they walk around the Big Apple, still amazed that the music they’ve been quietly playing for so long (many of them were in their 90s by this point) has taken them so far and is now being heard all over the world. Several of them even went on to release solo albums after this, getting a brief taste of success and stardom before they would pass away just a few years later. 

Just like the album, Buena Vista Social Club was a beloved hit, grossing $23 million and appearing on many critics’ year-end top-ten lists. It was also nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar. You could say Wenders’ doc opened the floodgates for more docs about Latin music (like Calle 54 or La Tropical) and forgotten, underappreciated musicians who finally get their long-overdue flowers (like Standing in the Shadows of Motown or 20 Feet from Stardom). But what Buena Vista Social Club ultimately did was gloriously salute some musical artists from Cuba who, even in their golden years, still had songs in their hearts.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.

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