Film Review: Buena Vista Social Club: Adiós

A cluttered rear-view of a cultural phenomenon, and a fond farewell to some of the Cuban music pioneers that inspired it.
Major Releases
Award Season 2015

Offering a pleasant, if not that urgent, documentary trip down memory lane, Buena Vista Social Club: Adiós, lowers the proverbial curtain on the musical and cultural phenomenon spawned by the eponymous Grammy-winning 1997 album and accompanying 1999 documentary by Wim Wenders. This follow-up, directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel, Waste Land), boasts its own impressive lineup of behind-the-camera talent, including teams of editors and cinematographers, and more credited producers it seems than there were musicians on the original album’s fourteen songs.

Maybe the crowd of chefs in the kitchen accounts for the film’s scattered approach to reintroducing the stars of the Buena Vista album, tour and film: that lovable group of Cuban son music masters who comprised the super-ensemble. The first hour chronicles the group’s inception, as co-founders, Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González and British record producer Nick Gold, recount how they assembled the very best son players and singers from the island’s mid-century heyday, some of them legends, a couple who’d been virtually forgotten.

Mixing fresh interviews and footage interpolated from Wenders’ Oscar-nominated documentary with standard archival pre-Revolution footage abetted by lushly photographed glimpses of contemporary Cuba, Walker’s film labors to establish several loosely woven storylines. Early portions, dense with details of names, dates and places, amble via slow fades from Havana to Amsterdam, and several stops in between, without much of a prevailing point of view to drive this return trip.

At first, the momentum appears directed towards reclaiming for the musicians their authentic sound and history. González and Gold, and wily old pros like the group’s songwriter-vocalists Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, are on hand to set a few records straight, before too many copycats or oft-told myths chip away too substantially at the B.V.S.C.’s hard-earned legacy. Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t sustain that bite, as it eases into a winking, upbeat mode of “Where Are They Now?”. Chasing various tangents, from Segundo’s tale of composing his famous “Chan Chan” to Ferrer relating his hard-knock life story, the doc delivers a roundabout summation of the industry survivors’ past and present-day accomplishments, before ending on an elegiac note of tribute to the Buena Vista band members who are no longer with us.

The collective charisma, wisdom and talent of these unexpected late-in-life sensations are undeniable. Seminal tropical-music pianist Rubén “El Bonito” González is a fount of poetic pith, and indefatigable songstress Omara Portuondo appears the soul of artistic honesty. Each musician commands the screen and the stage in their own way, and they produce beguiling chemistry as collaborators. While the movie doesn’t always flow as smoothly as the rum in Santiago de Cuba, it plainly makes clear what national and musical history the Buena Vista stars created as individuals, then together in their landmark recording.

An overriding respect and affection for the subjects alleviate the lack of narrative drive, sustaining the film until it finally does hit its stride with an effectively haunting sequence reflecting the Buena Vista family’s individual responses to their whirlwind of multi-platinum album sales and sold-out shows around the globe. Ferrer ruefully points out the incongruity of achieving such world-beating fame only after his 80-year-old voice was “messed up” and he could barely walk. At another moment, Portuondo notes with incisive candor that all those enthusiastic European and American crowds were dancing and shaking to songs that were, more often than not, about suffering. Throughout, the chosen footage emphasizes a profound appreciation for everything that age and the aged have to teach us.

“To remember is to live again,” quotes El Bonito, and he and his fellow son stars live passionately through the music they record and perform. That singular sound, of course, is why the gang’s all here. Walker and her editors show a knack for when to cut in a stunning take of Ferrer’s improvisational genius, or a showstopping clip of the ensemble delighting an arena full of newfound fans. These scenes and images won’t all be new to fans who’ve followed the rise of the B.V.S.C. through the Wenders doc and the musicians’ subsequent albums, but the journey does culminate in a few exciting updates, as the group savors their accolades and even plays a command performance in Obama’s White House. Not everyone who started out on the journey makes it to the end, but the film beautifully illustrates how their songs and traditions will live on through younger generations of composers, musicians and music lovers.

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