Lionsgate // 1999 // 100 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // January 27th, 2010
In Havana, music isn't a pastime, it's a way of life.
In 1996, blues-rock guitarist Ry Cooder embarked on a musical quest to Havana, Cuba, to track down the musicians and singers of pre-revolution Cuban music called son. Lighter than the brassy, rhythmic assault of mambo, son is a laid-back, gentle groove that allows for more nuanced singing and instrumentation. Cooder discovered a treasure trove of artists who were once popular but whose careers had long since ended with Fidel Castro's reign and Cuba's subsequent descent into poverty. Singers Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, and Compay Segundo, singer/guitarist Eliades Ochoa, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, and percussionist Amadito Valdes were just some of the musicians Cooder recruited for a brand-new album of classic sons and boleros (ballads) he produced. The end result, Buena Vista Social Club, was one of the most acclaimed albums of 1997. It earned a Grammy and was the best-selling album of Cooder's nearly thirty-year career. So in 1998, Cooder returned to Cuba to record a new album with some of the same musicians that was eventually released as Buena Vista Social Club Presents: Ibrahim Ferrer, accompanied by a documentary crew under the direction of Wim Wenders (Until the End of the World). He also put together a series of live shows in Amsterdam and New York's Carnegie Hall with as many of the Buena Vista musicians as possible.
Buena Vista Social Club follows Cooder and the Cubans throughout the recording sessions and the live concerts. It does more than that, however. It also gives time for each musician to tell his or her story, and these stories are a huge part of why the film is as emotionally affecting as it is. The music is, of course, intoxicatingly beautiful and you'll get to see and hear plenty of it, but it wouldn't mean as much without actually hearing why these musicians are so thrilled to get the chance to make it and present it to a wider audience. When you hear about the emotional trials that Ferrer, Portuondo and Gonzalez have endured will make you respect their unalloyed cheerful good humor and joy at performing even more. It's even more remarkable how exuberant their music is considering the poverty and hardships they endure daily in Cuba; one look at Ferrer's dingy apartment and meager possessions is heart-rending enough but when he describes how he had almost given up on singing to take up a job shining shoes, you'll understand his joy during the band's concerts. None of these musicians ever stopped loving music -- they just didn't have much opportunity to make it. When Ferrer and other musicians practically burst into tears of joy during some moments in this film, it's neither mawkish nor manipulative because you'll appreciate just how far they had to go to get to get to where they are.
Then there's the music itself. The snippets of the band's studio sessions are fun enough, but the real heart of these are the concerts -- two in Amsterdam, one at Carnegie Hall -- that cap off the band's triumphant career ascent. It's worth pointing out that Buena Vista Social Club is not a band in the traditional sense -- many of these musicians had never played together before the sessions for the first album and some had never even met. When they take the stage for the only performances that this band would ever play together, however, they come together seamlessly. Part of the credit must go to Cooder, who directs the band without stealing the spotlight, and also Segundo, a charismatic frontman who pulls everyone together through the sheer force of his personality. The band members themselves, however, prove to be the best kind of humble yet confident professionals they need to be. These are not small-time amateurs; Ferrer sang for Cuba's most renowned bandleader, Beny Moré, Gonzalez played with another Cuban musical titan, Arsenio Rodriguez, and Lopez played with many other big bands as well. Given the chance to demonstrate why they were so important, and how unfair it was that they were pushed aside, they deliver in spades. From the beautiful bolero "Dos Gardenias" to an exhilarating closing version of "Chan Chan," Buena Vista Social Club contains so much good music that it's hard to imagine anyone interested in Latin music who hasn't seen and enjoyed it.
As for this DVD issue, it's less commendable. If you already bought the previous single-disc issue of this film, there is absolutely no reason to buy this one. Though the cover and disc art are slightly different, the disc contents are identical right down to the menus. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is solid, although it sometimes does tend to look a little washed out. The Dolby 5.1 mix is superb, especially in bringing all of the many instruments in the musical numbers to life. These are both, however, the same as before with no new remastering. Similarly, there are no new extras on this disc. There's a commentary by Wenders that's worth listening to, since he tells some great stories about the musicians that he couldn't get into the film. There are a few deleted scenes, a pair of dispensable interviews and a couple of superb complete musical performances. Rounding out the disc is the film's trailer and some text extras that haven't been updated since 2000, the DVD's original release. Sad to say, many of the musicians profiled in this film, including Ferrer and Segundo, have since passed away, but the text bios and essays don't reflect this at all. This new issue, part of Lionsgate's "Music Makers" series, includes a superfluous CD sampler that includes a couple of songs from various Buena Vista-related releases as well as songs from other musical Lionsgate films. It's hardly any sort of incentive to get this edition.
Nonetheless, whatever edition you choose to get, Buena Vista Social Club is an essential part of any music DVD collection. It's neither a comprehensive history of Cuban music (that hasn't been made yet) nor a straight-ahead concert film. It's really a film about how the urge to make music can overcome any hardship and how important it is to seize opportunities to do what you love. It's also just a sheer pleasure to watch so many talented musicians make beautiful and enchanting music. Highly recommended.
Buena Vista Social Club is not guilty, but this reissue is guilty of being pointlessly redundant.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Deleted Scenes
* Bonus CD