My infatuation with Wim Wenders‘ work has developed over the past few years as I’ve watched his fiction feature films available from The Criterion Collection. Wenders is also a devoted documentarian (he’s been nominated for three Best Documentary Feature Academy Awards, including for the film this post is about), and most of these non-fiction works are still blind-spots for me. The Criterion Collection is filling those in as well, fortunately. A few years ago they released his 2011 dance documentary, Pina, and this month they are releasing his 1999 Cuban music documentary, Buena Vista Social Club.
Sometimes at this point in the review I say that I was foolishly wary about trying something new, especially about a topic — Cuban music — I didn’t know anything about and had never really felt compelled to learn about, yadi yadi yah. I don’t need to do that here. It’s not true. I was not wary. No, I was excited and confident I wouldn’t be disappointed before I popped in the disc. Where do you want me to go, Mr. Wenders? Cuba in the late 1990s? I’m ready.
Growing up in the 1980s, I mostly know Cuba through red scare horror stories and the 1950s night club culture Desi Arnaz lent to I Love Lucy. I was born two decades after Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba in 1959, effectively shutting down American relations with Cuba that looked so inviting in the reruns of the 1950’s sitcom. I didn’t even know that much of this culture was the result of a kind of U.S. mobster ran den of vice.
As it turns out, among other things Buena Vista Social Club is a film that seeks to find that 1940s and 1950s Cuba, that music, that club, lost by the 1990s for a few generations but still present in the periphery and perhaps there to be captured since the Soviet Union had fallen and Castro was seeking to open up a bit to get some cash flow. Time remaining to capture any of it, though, was growing short.
The film begins with Compay Segundo, the first star from yesteryear, pictured below, riding in a car around the section of Havana where the historic Buena Vista Social Club once stood. He’s asking people, the old people, where it used to be.
“That’s long gone,” some say. Indeed, it’s been gone for fifty years, this place Segundo used to know well, the place where the best bands in Cuba would perform.
Cut into this opening sequence is a new performance, this one in Amsterdam in 1998, the great musicians together to perform on a small tour after the release of a major breakout music album recorded a few years ago called, fittingly, Buena Vista Social Club. Meanwhile, we see music producer Ry Cooder riding around the Havana streets. There they are: beautiful colonial buildings, long cars straight from the 1940s and 1950s, the surf blasting against the street. It’s beautiful, yet it’s sad. It’s falling apart. That time is further and further away, and little has been done to preserve it . . . or to get the old cars off the street.
Wenders doesn’t come in and talk about any of this. He’s not subverting the music documentary by doing a social documentary. Rather, it’s all one and the same thing. He’s simply walking the streets with these men and women, most of them late in years. Indeed, most will be dead a few years after the documentary’s release. Wenders goes where these subjects want to go. If they want to talk music, he lets them talk music. If they want to talk about the past, they talk about the past. It’s respectful, open, and enriching to those of us watching.
The Criterion Collection edition provides a lot of supplemental material to provide context and a fair share of extra indulgence (we get extra scenes!). There’s a 1999 commentary by Wim Wenders, a new interview interview with Wenders, and more than a dozen interviews, for radio and television, with the musicians and other artists involved.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I was willing to go where Wenders took me, but I am still surprised by how much I enjoyed sitting down and watching this documentary. It brought back to me the best of my experience watching the Les Blank documentaries Criterion released a few years ago. Being able to peak at a time, a place, a culture by spending some time with remarkable musicians is a treasure.