Soundtracks of Significance: “Buena Vista Social Club”
Director Wim Wenders got his start with German road movies, took top honors at Cannes with the surreal family saga Paris, Texas, then carved out a specialized niche with a slate of documentaries about musicians and artists. Critical acclaim has been a constant throughout his varied career, but in 1999 he caught the attention of audiences, too: the film and album Buena Vista Social Club, bringing together a group of of 70-, 80-, and 90-year-old Cuban-African fusion musicians, fed off each other until the Oscar-nominated documentary had grossed $23 million and the album went platinum. Even protests and a bomb threat couldn’t stop the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon.
Wenders’ entry into the subject of son music, which blends Spanish instrumentality with African rhythms and reached peak popularity in the decadent Havana of the 1950s, was the American session guitarist Ry Cooder. Cooder had scored Paris, Texas for Wenders a decade and a half earlier, and now the eclectic roots and folk musician was in Havana helping to produce a collaboration between African and Cuban artists for a world music album. Unfortunately (or, in light of the later success of Buena Vista Social Club and its members, fortunately), visa trouble on the African side scuttled the original plan. Cooder brought in some additional Cuban musicians to fill the void and set up shop in a 1950s-era recording studio where they made a record. They took their name from an old Havana club where many of the members had performed decades previously.
The documentary by Wenders recaps that story, putting faces to the aged but powerful voices. It picks up as Cooder and the Cuban members of the group — fronted by pianist Rubén Gonzáles (b. 1919) and singers Compay Segundo (b. 1907), Puntillita (b. 1921), and Ibrahim Ferrer (b. 1927) — are preparing to follow up their surprisingly strong album sales with a concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in July 1998.
At that time, of course, the U.S. travel and trade embargo against Castro’s Cuba was in its fourth decade and showed no signs of ending. The Buena Vista Social Club members were largely middle-aged or older when Castro came to power, and they played gentle dance-and-romance tunes of a pre-Revolution vintage. Their music was, on the surface at least, apolitical, but in the words of writer Art Levine it prompted “affection and a fond nostalgic remembrance” of a “lost Cuba” to those who heard it. Some members of Miami’s Cuban expatriate community didn’t buy it; they saw any high-profile exception on the travel embargo as a legitimation of the present regime, and the octogenarians of Buena Vista Social Club were suddenly high-profile indeed. Some of them attended a 1998 conference in Miami and were greeted with large protests and a convention hall-clearing bomb threat.
Then something changed. Wenders’ documentary came out and was nominated for an Oscar. The album found new fans outside of the World Music scene. Ferrer and Gonzales were becoming “near household names” and planning to release solo albums. Wenders captured this sudden, belated, unlikely rise by filming the group members in their unassuming Havana homes and then in their finest moment of glory: the trip to New York City, which some of them had visited before the embargo. One member grows almost giddy pointing in the direction of half-remembered landmarks, but then he pauses, unsure now where things lay behind half a century’s worth of new skyscrapers. It was impossible to hate these grandfatherly figures, these masters of son. When the movie screened in Miami to an enthusiastic and largely Cuban crowd, cultural activities councilor Raquel Vallejo noted wryly that “a lot of the people clapping tonight were the same people involved in the protests outside the convention hall” a year earlier.
The music of Buena Vista Social Club — the gothic ballad “Chan Chan,” the infectious chorus of “De Camino a la Verada,” the smoky ivory-tickling on the title track — crossed political boundaries literally and figuratively. Wenders’ documentary exposed it to a larger audience. It was always going to be a last hurrah for a generation of Cuban musicians: Puntillita died a year and a half later, followed by Segundo in 2003 (four years shy of his hundredth birthday), Gonzáles a few months after that, and Ferrer in 2005. In 2008, the recording of the Carnegie Hall show finally got a CD release. The crowd at that concert had seen one of only two shows ever performed with the full Buena Vista Social Club lineup, and from the way they cheer the opening bars of the first song as the strong voices rise in unison, it sounds like they knew it. Thanks to Wenders’ cameras and Cooder’s album, though, this glimpse of the music of old Cuba lives on.
Buena Vista Social Club vs. The Last Waltz
Martin Scorsese‘s tribute to the great group The Band, featuring cameo performances from a slew of Americana, folk, country, and pop musicians, is often cited as a great concert movie. It is, but Buena Vista Social Club is something more. By showing the musicians in their homes, Wenders discovers sympathetic personal angles and suggests cultural and historical contexts that help explain why their music matters.
Winner: Buena Vista Social Club
Buena Vista Social Club vs. Gimme Shelter
Buena Vista Social Club documents a genre of music decades after its heyday, which is perhaps just as impressive and difficult as doing it in the moment. Still, the immediacy of the history captured on camera in 1970‘s Gimme Shelter gives it an edge. The documentary is both a greatest hits of Stones songs and a bleak look at the frayed edges of the counterculture.
Winner: Gimme Shelter