Buena Vista Social Club

By Darby Sawchuk

In 1997, Ry Cooder dug up treasures in Cuba. Finding himself without accompanying musicians for his latest musical endeavour, he made the most of his moments on the sun-bleached streets of Havana, Cuba. He assembled a group of Cuba’s finest musicians and produced the Grammy award-wining Buena Vista Social Club.

Two years later sees a further glimpse into the lives of living legends with the film Buena Vista Social Club. With Cooder again producing and Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Faraway, So Close) directing, the documentary trails the collection of aged virtuosos through their recording process, their performances in Amsterdam, and finally their re-union in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

Listeners of the Social Club’s music find themselves transported to sun-heated tropical sands, swaying gently to sexy, soulful sounds. Soon, a music lover could find they have lost their day to the soothing but passionate songs.

With the album, Cooder’s aim was to breathe life back into the careers of these aging artists. Some had been all but forgotten, but the recording of Buena Vista served as a portal through which we might glimpse some of their genius.

Wenders film expands on that purpose. In addition to immersion in the sounds of the Social Club, the film penetrates their lives as well.

Wenders frequently circles the musicians with the camera as they perform and tell the rich tales of their rich lives. Continuing Cooder’s mission, Wenders attempts to capture each artist from every angle.

Buena Vista begins with contrasting visuals united by the sensual son music played by the band while recording and performing live. The yellow-white, nearly over-exposed shots of a perpetually-bright Havana jump to the dull, flattened colour of the Amsterdam performances, but the viva-city of the music is retained

With profound character, the old men and women of the Social Club spin yarns of their entry into their art as well as the heydays of their careers. Expert pianist Ruben Gonzalez narrates the story of his blind former band leader who careened himself toward hecklers with arms outstretched intent on getting his revenge. Ibrahim Ferrer, the Cuban Nat King Cole, reminisces about the days when he was shining shoes instead of singing when Cooder found him and rushed him to the recording studio before he could wipe the shoe polish off his face.

Buena Vista elevates its subjects from distant artists to close, familiar human beings. Viewers share in the joy of the performers during their performances, their everyday lives and their new experiences. From the tears Ferrer tenderly wipes from his duet partner Omara Portuondo on stage, to the domino game used to kill time between studio sessions, to the musicians’ discovery of New York City and its magic, Buena Vista carries us to a point where the players become our friends.

The group’s passion spreads to their lives. The contagion does not stop there. The audience walks away equally infected.

Buena Vista Social Club plays at the Plaza Theatre.

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