Early in Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club, we meet Compay Segundo, a vocalist in the streets of Havana talking of a consommé that’s made with chicken neck and garlic. Regardless of the level of one’s personal knowledge of Segundo, it’s evident that he’s a legend, as he has the essence of someone accustomed to heightening themselves into mythology, turning every word he says into art via the grace of his being. A profoundly dapper man often in a fedora, it’s shocking to later learn that Segundo is 90 years old, as he’s still quite the virile fox. As Segundo reminisces about his grandmother in Siboney, Wenders lingers on the man’s hand holding a smoldering cigar in the sunlight, forging a poetic image of warmth and nostalgia.
The film revels in the confluence of these sorts of vignettes and textures, to its simultaneous advantage and disadvantage. Wenders follows the Cuban musicians who collaborated on Buena Vista Social Club, the best-selling album that Ry Cooder produced in honor of the legendary venue of the same name, as they play shows in Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall in 1998. The filmmaker predominantly alternates between the Amsterdam concert and interviews with the musicians as they wander Cuban landscapes, recalling their initiation into music. A repetition sets in, as it becomes obvious that Wenders’s subjects are all telling essentially the same story, which remains naggingly generic and un-elaborated upon by the filmmaker. Each musician came up poor and lived rough during Castro’s revolution, now wearing their survivorship gracefully in their bodies and performance. Many of these aging, extraordinarily graceful and charismatic musicians, who might’ve played in places like the original Buena Vista Social Club of the 1940s and 1950s, are in danger of being forgotten or never celebrated to begin with, and so the album and film both boast an association of glorious and unexpected transcendence.
Wenders is eaten up with this notion of transcendence, and his documentary goes soft. The filmmaker lingers on the glowing faces of the musicians during the Amsterdam concert, reveling in the communal bonhomie of musicianship, eliding almost any suggestion of the work that goes into such a show. Each scene segues without incident or connection into the next. Buena Vista Social Club flirts with smugness, or at least schmaltziness. In classic concert films such as Stop Making Sense, we’re made privy to the exertion that yields art, which provokes a kind of textural drama. But Wenders is concerned only with staging a prolonged victory lap for the Buena Vista Social Club, fashioning a film that functions as a glorified DVD supplement for the album.
It’s distractingly apparent that Wenders, a German, wishes to evade the trap of taking a glib position on Cuba’s political legacy and thusly indulging an alien’s unseasoned perspective, which is admirable but artistically self-defeating. Wenders subscribes to the purity of art as a self-justifying entity onto itself, but, in reality, art is more like a pearl in relation to the informative grit that is the surrounding lives of its creators, and so a film about a particular art should also concern itself with the grit. Even a cursory listen to the lyrics of these songs reveals the pain of poverty, oppression, loneliness, and loss of identity, which Wenders complements with gorgeous, obsessively empty and Hopper-esque images. Musicians occupy the frames, facing us in poses that are frequently too cute, inhabiting abandoned bars and churches, as well as populated streets that abound in dilapidated Romanesque architecture and vintage American cars. These compositions are all rendered with a colorful and sporadic vitality that’s meant to testify to the emotional extremis of the unsaid, which is also suggested through background images of Che Guevara and graffiti that insists that the “revolution is eternal.”
There’s mystery, majesty, eroticism, and despair in many of these images, which Wenders clearly believes to speak for themselves, but there’s also an inchoate hollowness in this film that leaves terrific moments scattered about without a foundation. Buena Vista Social Club is dogged by a cultural vagueness that’s exacerbated by a lack of structure, as the film hop-scotches between the interviews and the concerts with an arrhythmic randomness that grows interminable. Wenders fosters an echo chamber that robs the wonderful music of the counterpoint of strife that yielded it, threatening to contextualize it as a harmless old-folks’ act. Wenders’s fictional films are often stiflingly controlled and theoretical, but in Buena Vista Social Club he overcompensates with an impression of looseness that’s supposed to be humble but inadvertently scans as settled and self-congratulatory.
Grain and clarity are variable in this image, but that's inherent to the source materials that were captured in a spontaneous manner. Colors run hot and vibrant, which is important to doing the moody, painterly compositions of Buena Vista Social Club justice, and image detail is subtle and minute, which is especially obvious when regarding the musicians' vivid wardrobes and skin textures. The real triumph of this transfer, however, is the 5.1 surround soundtrack, which boasts a highly tactile sense of instrumentation. The bass vibrates with earthy power, the violins resonate with pristine tremulousness, and so forth, and the smaller aural details, such as the sounds of footsteps treading on cracked and dirty streets, are equally robust.
The audio commentary with Wim Wenders, recorded in 1999, adds the texture that's missing from the film proper. Wenders discusses staging certain scenes, such as Ry Cooder's entrance into a studio in Havana, and the various logistics of compressing songs from different shooting schedules together into one number. Wenders also covers the lax Cuban filming regulations, the importance of the lyrics in the songs we hear, and the relationship between the performers and the Steadicam that was used. Much of this context is inherently dramatic and often imperative to great performance films, and was strangely omitted by Wenders in the name of achieving a kind of autumnal tranquility that grows narcotizing. Seriously, prioritize watching Buena Vista Social Club with the Wenders commentary, as this is its ideal and ultimate incarnation, and indicates a new way of creating and watching films, with authorial commentary as an intimate component rather than a retrospective novelty. A new interview with Wenders, recorded this year, offers similarly illuminating information, such as how much money these broke singers were making before and after the release of the album as well as the cultural tensions existing between the German filmmaking team and Cuban performers (once again, why isn't this information already in the film?). A variety of archive interviews with the various members of the Buena Vista Social Club offer a wealth of further detail. Additional scenes, the theatrical trailer, and an essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro round out a solid, if mostly vintage, assemblage of supplements.
Criterion's transfer of an overrated musical staple is both rough and beautiful, in meticulously proper proportion.