Artisan // 1999 // 105 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge David Rogers (Retired) // March 16th, 2000
"An unforgettable, deeply emotional journey into the passion, pride and humanity of the artists whose music sparked a worldwide musical phenomenon."
Buena Vista Social Club is a film constructed around a Cuban folk music album, similar to the 'Rattle and Hum' album by U2. Intercut between studio and live music footage are interview and profile segments about the artists and environment involved. Director Wim Wenders calls the disc a 'musicmentery', and I can think of no more accurate title than that.
As this is a 'World Beat' music selection, to use the term I see in common use to describe music from a variety of different musical backgrounds, the disc is offered only in the native Spanish. English subtitles are recorded directly on the film.
Musically, this is a very well done disc. The artists have passion for their craft, and the chemistry they share on stage and in the studio is clearly evident. The sound field makes very nice use of the Dolby 5.1 feature set; the surrounds are used for ambiance and crowd noises, and the entire mix has a very theater or auditorium feel to it. To an American ear, some of the song lyrics don't quite resonate with me as I'm sure they would with native Spanish speakers, I can only offer praise for the music itself. Wonderful music is to be found here, regardless what language you speak.
The live footage is taken from a concert the musicians gave in Amsterdam, a concert that received a much better response than had originally been expected. The interview footage is shot on locations around the world, mostly in Cuba. As a result, there is a wide range of quality and video appearance represented on the disc; footage from different locations can often be spotted simply by the look of the video. Regardless of source, the video transfer is fairly clean; no grit or distortions, edges are clean, and there aren't any visible instances of artifacting or pixelation.
There are two interview segments on the disc, each with artists and people associated with the music and film, as well as two additional music segments. There are text biographies on the musicians and production crew, and about a page of text detailing the production of the disc itself.
Unfortunately, there are a few oddities about this disc that mar an otherwise great presentation. Because of the original footage, most of the video is washed or faded, some of it has a downright hand-held camera feel to it. This is not a fault of the transfer, but rather the original footage as it was shot. To an extremely media-savvy American eye, the video comes off looking odd, different. It does not have the polished presentation look one normally sees from American film productions. This isn't exactly a bad thing, but it's certainly unusual to a consumer in this country; especially lay consumers.
The menus are nicely laid out, but take a tad longer than they should to load; an extra second here, an extra second there. Again, not exactly a problem, but noticeable.
Finally, the subtitles are recorded directly on the film, without using the DVD format's subtitle feature. This means you have to watch them even if you speak Spanish, and could be objectionable to some consumers.
A great disc for world music fans, it's a real shame the original footage wasn't shot with a higher production value than it was. Regardless, the music and the musicians are the centerpiece here, and they come through strongly.
Hard to really pass judgment against Buena Vista Social Club. A unique disc that has magic on it. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Two Additional Song Segments
* Two Interview Featurettes
* Director's Commentary (in English)