The original Buena Vista Social Club, directed by Wim Wenders and released in 1998, was a nonstop ode to joy. It charted the amazing story of a handful of veteran Afro-Cuban musicians—many of them already in their 70s and 80s—assembled in Havana to record an album with American slide guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder. Which, improbably, led them all to international stardom when the album and Wenders’ Oscar-nominated film about its production became huge hits.
If you never saw the first film, the sequel, The Buena Vista Social Club: Adios, is a lively introduction to these once-forgotten musicians and their incredible journey. For fans of the original, there’s not a lot of new material here; in fact, a lot of the footage seems to have been repurposed from film shot for the first movie. What is new this time around is the continuing stories of these intrepid singers and players in the intervening two decades of international acclaim. But this also means the film has an elegiac tone, as suggested by its subtitle.
Directed by Lucy Walker, the new film introduces Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, who was Cooder’s producer and point man in Havana, helping him assemble the Cuban talent. In the opening sequence, Gonzalez leads the camera to the site of the original Buena Vista Social Club, much of it now patio between buildings; he has to duck under laundry on clotheslines to get to it.
But it was once a thriving nightclub and dance hall for black Cubans, back in the segregated 1940s and ’50s, referred to as “the Golden Era of Cuban music.” One of the few benefits of the dictatorship of Batista, notes one interviewee, is that he built a lot of casinos in Havana (with an influx of American gangster money) so musicians had a lot of places to perform. All of which changed after Castro’s revolution, when relations with the Western world ceased and Cuba became the island that time forgot.
The passage of time is one of Walker’s major themes. Early on, we get a brief history of Cuba, from the destruction of the indigenous people by Spanish expeditions and the importation of Africans as slaves, to the birth of percussive, passionate Afro-Cuban music (called “son” by its practitioners). Born in the eastern highlands, son music spread across the entire island over the radio in the 1920s.
But when diplomatic relations ended in 1960, so did the tourist trade; the casinos closed, opportunities for musicians dried up, and many of the most respected players had to quit the scene and take non-musical jobs to survive. Ibrahim Ferrer, with his impish demeanor and angel’s voice, was reduced to shining shoes. Pianist extraordinaire Rubén González describes how termites literally ate his piano, so long unused. Still, as guitar maestro Compay Segundo says, “For Cubans, music is our food. When we go through tough times, we create new styles.”
There’s a lot more information here on each individual musician’s biography and performing history—and lots of terrific vintage black-and-white footage of these performers in their heyday. We see kinescopes of the young Ferrer in the early ’60s as a backup singer to a popular Cuban TV performer who never gave him a chance to sing a solo. Regal diva Omara Portuondo is seen singing and dancing with a popular ’50s female quartet, Cuarteto d’Aida—on television programs including the one which featured Ferrer. One of the most touching aspects of Walker’s film is the enduring 50-year friendship of Ferrer and Portuondo as time marches on.
Inevitably, much of this film is devoted to bidding “Adios” to many of these legends in the years following their greatest success. “Now?” jokes Ferrer about his late-blooming celebrity. “Now that my voice is messed up and I can hardly walk. Now?” (Don’t believe him about his voice; it remains beautiful!) But as Juan de Marcos Gonzalez sums up, “The flowers of life came late” to these indomitable performers. “But they came.”
THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: ADIOS (PG) (May 26)
*** (out of four)
With Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, and Compay Segundo. A documentary by Lucy Walker. A Broad Green release. Rated PG. 110 minutes.