"Buena Vista Social Club"

Wim Wenders gave the world an affecting documentary about terrific musicians. Now if he'd only stop talking.

By Jeff Stark

Published June 22, 2000 8:00PM (EDT)

"Buena Vista Social Club" the album was already a phenomenon when Wim Wenders went to Cuba to shoot the shoestring documentary of the same name. By dropping in on a solo session with singer Ibrahim Ferrer, the German director was able to capture on video the same combination of talent, nostalgia and sun-drenched color that made the original album such a raging success among the NPR crowd. At the time, the record had earned decent word-of-mouth sales and won an unexpected Grammy; in the wake of Wenders' documentary, it would go platinum.

The tidy, sharply edited movie intercuts studio footage, musician interviews and Havana street scenes with two concerts filmed in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and one in New York. Shot on the run -- with a week's notice, two video cameras and a Steadicam -- it looks like it was done in a hurry, as if Wenders was in a rush to grab all of the musicians, all of the texture of Cuba and all of the story in one quick swoop, or one quick 360-degree maneuver around his subject (clearly the cinematographer's favorite move). Yet at the same time, the flowy style gives the film a flavor that complements the spicy music. And the life stories told by each of the musicians are so wonderful that they work against the nauseous herk-and-jerk camerawork.

Wenders' commentary on the DVD doesn't do a lot for the movie; in a sense, he betrays everything that's beautiful about it. He dwells on little moments -- a teary eye, a distant look in the middle of a concert -- that the camera passes over with grace. He also seems condescending toward the musicians, talking about how "natural" and "authentic" and "pure" they all are. It's oddly enough the same kind of garbage you hear first-world German tourists talking about in third-world places like Guatemala and El Salvador; it's just weird to hear it coming from a director who seemed to have gone beyond that in his film. In the movie itself Wenders stoops that low only with Ry Cooder, the guitarist who produced both "Buena Vista" sessions, and his fawning is even more pronounced in the director's commentary; Wenders just can't quit thanking him, putting him on a pedestal -- even though Cooder seems to want no part of it.

To its credit, "Buena Vista Social Club" isn't a concert video. The way the interviews play off one another, then all come together when the musicians gather onstage in New York, is one of the real joys of the picture. Still, with all the space that DVD offers, and with Wenders' talk of three-camera live concert shoots and 80 hours of tape, it would be nice to see more than two uninterrupted songs -- if not the entire Amsterdam or Carnegie Hall concerts -- on the DVD. Perhaps Artisan is saving it for the special edition.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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