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The Boston Phoenix Bello Bolero

Wim Wenders visits the Buena Vista Social Club

By Josh Kun

JUNE 21, 1999:  "Donde están los viejos," asks Compay Segundo. Buena Vista Social Club, the new documentary directed by Wim Wenders and produced by guitarist Ry Cooder, begins with a search for old folks. Dressed in a white suit and clutching his omnipresent cigar, legendary 92-year-old singer and instrumentalist Compay Segundo patrols the streets of Havana, looking for anyone seasoned enough to remember the whereabouts of the Buena Vista Social Club, a members-only club in the East Havana Hills that produced, along with Segundo, some of the island's greatest and most forgotten players.

The directions he gets are vague at best, and we quickly learn that either the club has completely vanished or only pieces remain. From that early moment on, Buena Vista Social Club becomes far more than a documentary; it becomes both a seductive excavation of an extraordinary group of musicians long buried in the sounds of memory and a frayed postcard valentine to Havana, a city that Wenders calls "a disappearing beauty."

The project's roots date back to 1996, when guitarist and veteran global music prospector Ry Cooder was asked by World Circuit records to fly to Havana to work on a collaboration between Malinese musicians and old-timer Afro-Cubans. When visa problems blocked the African contingent's arrival, Cooder stayed on to work with the "super abuelos," and the result was 1998's Buena Vista Social Club album, an extraordinary collection of delicate and emotional sones and boleros that would go on to sell more than a million copies worldwide, snag a Grammy, and revive the careers of Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, Rubén González, and others.

Wenders entered the picture when he asked Cooder, his friend for more than 20 years, to compose the score for his 1997 film The End of Violence. During the sessions, Cooder's inability to stop talking about his Cuban sojourn ignited Wenders's interest in making the trip.

"I had never been to Cuba before," explains Wenders by telephone from his LA home. "It was like a dream to finally go. What really got me there was Ry Cooder's enthusiasm for this music and the experience he had when he recorded the Buena Vista Social Club album and the way he was talking about it relentlessly and all the stories he told me about these guys. I thought if half of what he told me was true, I had to see these people. He was so full of the experience and it was so contagious that eventually I just said, 'Hey, next time take me with you.' "

So when Cooder went back to Havana last year to record the first solo album of lulling boleros by the honey-voiced Buena Vista singer Ibrahim Ferrer (whom Cooder dubs "a Cuban Nat King Cole"), Wenders -- working on one week's notice -- went along with a cameraman and a sound engineer for a minimalist three-week Havana shoot. But the three weeks grew into a cumulative year of footage when Wenders decided to follow the group on tour to Amsterdam and New York City. The Amsterdam performance produces one of the film's most memorable moments: a bolero duet between Ferrer and the elegant Omara Portuondo that leaves Portuondo in tears. In New York, with the specter of the US embargo hanging over them, the group visit the Statue of Liberty, misrecognize a JFK doll, and play Carnegie Hall in the film's climactic closing minutes.

Yet for all of Buena Vista's concert footage, the film's true center is the graceful combination of liquid, video snapshots of Havana -- waves crashing over '50s cars on the Malecón, an elderly woman smoking an enormous cigar -- with unassuming excerpts from the Ferrer recording sessions and often stunning individual portraits of each of the Buena Vista musicians. A cowboy-hatted Eliades Ochoa sings a guajira about his countryside home while sitting in the middle of an abandoned railroad yard. Former Arsenio Rodríguez sideman Rubén González unfolds his warm piano strolls in a luminous recital hall as young children practice ballet. Portuondo walks down a Havana street singing "Veinte años" and finds herself in a duet with an anonymous woman she passes. Bassist Orlando "Cachaíto" López plucks his instrument in the center of an empty room lit only by stained-glass windows.

Shooting on Digi-Beta with a SteadiCam, Wenders approaches each musician with grace and caution -- circling him or her on tiptoes and slowly moving from wide panoramic shots to gentle close-ups of wrinkled hands and worn matchbooks. It is a formula that the director parts with only once, when he visits Ferrer in his small apartment (Ferrer is worried when Wenders is late; he thinks the cops have picked him up). Ferrer proudly displays his altar to his personal divinity, Lázaro, and in meticulous detail explains how he lights Lázaro candles, spritzes him with perfume, and gives him flowers, bee honey, and his favorite offering, a shot of rum.

"Once I got to know them better, these people really are like characters in a movie or a play," says Wenders. "The leading players in the band were such extraordinary people that I wanted to introduce them one by one. I didn't want to go to Cuba and shoot this music from tripods because I thought it would be really stiff and academic. I also didn't feel like shooting it hand-held because that tends to be rather rough and edgy. The music is so elegant that I thought if I had a SteadiCam I could be constantly moving and it would be smooth."

Although the film privileges the stories and experiences of the Cuban musicians, it is openly shot from the outside looking in. And it's the dual perspective of Wenders and Cooder that, especially in the movie's first half, structures Buena Vista's narrative direction. Whereas Wenders himself stays out of the frame (something he didn't do in his two previous "diary" experiments with documentary, Tokyo-Ga and Notebook on Cities and Clothing), Cooder is featured prominently. For large portions of the film, we're reminded of his mediation in the music we're hearing and the people we're meeting. Early on we see him and his drummer son Joachim cruising the Havana streets in a motorcycle and sidecar like hipster tropical explorers, and Wenders can hardly keep the camera from wandering back to Cooder's face during the group's performances. In one uncomfortable moment during the Amsterdam show, the band sing the line "Enjoy the real thing" and Wenders cuts to Cooder. Which does little to quell the debates sparked when the Buena Vista recording was released last year: how do we understand Cooder's role in bringing this music to the public? Is Buena Vista Social Club just another story of cultural brokerage, with Cooder as the white North American who gives Afro-Cubans the gift of their own music?

Wenders deflects such criticism. "Each of these musicians is thrilled and extremely grateful to Ry for either the second chance Ry gave them or, in the case of Ibrahim, the first chance. Anybody who knows Ry and knows his modesty and knows his love for these people and for any of the musicians he has rediscovered in the course of his career would know it's a criticism that is totally obsolete. You'd know it as soon as you would talk to the people themselves."

More of an issue, when you consider how synonymous Cuba is with its political history, is Buena Vista's conscious pursuit of visual lyricism over political content. There are no direct references to the revolution, and there's no overt discussion of the embargo's role in Havana's decline, though the impact of both are palpable throughout. Here, as elsewhere in Buena Vista, Wenders simply hints, offering aesthetically rich, impressionistic clues: the band flying a Cuban flag from the stage of Carnegie Hall, the marquee of the Karl Marx Hotel that's missing an R, a story of Che letting Fidel beat him at golf. Ferrer gets in the film's sole moment of pointed anti-capitalist sentiment when he remarks, "If we'd followed the way of the possessions, we'd have disappeared long ago. We have learned to resist the good and the bad."

In other words, Wenders sacrifices political sloganeering for the loftier goal of making a film that achieves the state of music. He's the rare director who listens when he sees; his shots billow and glow like the romantic breeze of a bolero or shift and roll like the quiet polyrhythms of an old son. In the end, the music is the film's most enduring character -- its songs and stories return the musicians who bring it to life to their rightful place in a history too infrequently told.

"The music comes so much out of experience and out of life," the director concludes. "It's truly not show business. It's music that they're breathing and that they need to live. It comes so much from the heart and soul that it's as elementary as it can be. We often forget how elementary music is."

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