Review: ‘Buena Vista Social Club’

There's no substitute for experience, and under the gentle guardianship of peripatetic slide guitarist Ry Cooder, the Cuban all-star band Buena Vista Social Club shows off a couple eons' worth in this seductive performance-interview doc.

There’s no substitute for experience, and under the gentle guardianship of peripatetic slide guitarist Ry Cooder, the Cuban all-star band Buena Vista Social Club shows off a couple eons’ worth in this seductive performance-interview doc. Wim Wenders’ pic reps not only some of the sexiest music on the planet, played by the antic musicians who refined it, but the director’s most orthodox and warm work in the form to date. Prospects are muy bueno down the line: Most everyone with a pulse will want to get into this club.

With a name taken from a long-defunct Havana hangout (opinions differ on where exactly it was), the idea to round up as many of the city’s old-guard musicians as could be located was first hatched in the 1970s by the prolific Cooder — who in the course of a 35-year career has done sublime work with Wenders on the director’s “Paris, Texas” and “The End of Violence.” But it wasn’t until March 1996 that he finally got a group (some of whom hadn’t played their instruments in more than a decade) into Havana’s Egrem Studios to cut the self-named record that subsequently appeared on numerous critical lists and won the Grammy for best tropical Latin performance. (The album has sold nearly a half-million copies in the U.S. alone).

Exactly two years later, with Joerg Widmer’s sinewy Steadicam circling the room, BVSC was back in Havana with Cooder to record a solo record behind vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, whom Cooder calls “the Cuban Nat King Cole.” Intercut with these laid-back sessions are equally relaxed interviews with the band’s major players on eye-catching locations and highlights from their July shows in Amsterdam.

There’s 90-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, who has five children and is confidently “working on the sixth”; showboating pianist Ruben Gonzalez (whose stage moves at 80 would put most contempo bands to shame); Barbarito Torres, who in concert stops the show by playing the guitar, behind his back (and at 42 is the youngster of the group); and comically histrionic singer Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, who makes the most of a feature vocal that begins with the line “Tula’s bedroom’s gone up in flames.”

Wisely, Wenders lets the music and the sprightly people who make it speak for themselves, although the director’s ongoing fascination with the urban environment is in top form as the camera serenely cruises the streets of Havana, often at a velvety dusk.

Tech credits are superb, with pic’s unique pastel look seemingly the result of oversaturating the Havana interview material and undersaturating the shadowy Dutch show. Widmer’s supple lensing is supplemented by Robby Mueller’s concert photography and Lisa Renzler’s digital Beta footage on the streets of New York. The shimmering Dolby SRD sound mix makes the film a must for the best possible venues and gives the effect of being in the hall for this celebration of spirit with these remarkable, eternally young musicians.

Buena Vista Social Club


A Road Movies Filmproduktion production, in association with Kintop Pictures, Arte, ICAIC. (International sales: Summit Entertainment, London.) Produced by Ulrich Felsberg, Deepak Nayar. Executive producer, Felsberg. Directed by Wim Wenders.


Camera (color), Joerg Widmer; additional camera, Robby Mueller, Lisa Rinzler; editor, Brian Johnson; music, Buena Vista Social Club; sound (Dolby SRD), Walter Mueller; associate producer, Rosa Bosch. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (noncompeting), Feb. 17, 1999. Running time: 105 MIN.


Ry Cooder, Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, Orlando Lopez "Cachaito," Barbarito Torres, Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, Raul Planes, Felix Valoy, Richard Eques, Maceo Rodriguez, Joaquim Cooder.
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