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Memphis Flyer Joyful Documentary

The 'Buena Vista Social Club' is an extraordinary act of cultural conservation.

By Hadley Hury

AUGUST 23, 1999:  The Buena Vista Social Club is a joyful documentary of what one participant accurately deems "a crucially important event in the tradition of Cuban music." For anyone who has come to know and love the critically acclaimed and best-selling album of the same name, Wim Wenders' behind-the-scenes film will provide access to further rejoicing and deeper appreciation; for newcomers to this extraordinary act of cultural conservation, it will serve as a seductive introduction to the music itself.

In the 1970s, musician Ry Cooder and his wife sojourned in Cuba, where he discovered what was to become a deep and lasting affinity for the island's traditional regional music. Amid the superimposed austerity of a new Marxist regime only awkwardly fitted to the creole nation, Cooder sought the true pulse of the native cultural temperament. He found it, albeit languishing and isolated, in Cuba's uniquely felicitous musical hybridization of European troubadour, western African, and Moorish influences. Here and there, in some hole-in-the-wall club, he would come upon one of the great masters of a 300-year tradition, which had last invigorated itself for a major run of glory days from the 1920s through the '50s.

Cooder was acutely aware that this gorgeous and important music -- not unlike the American landmark tradition of Gershwin, Porter, and Kern which has only recently come appropriately and fully into our perspective after a couple of decades of misconsigned "old-fashionedness" -- was in peril of being lost to the cultural straightenings and exigencies of Castro's brave new world. State radio had little use for "decadent" art; the old masters had no proteges. "But," says Cooder in the film, "I didn't know what to do about it."

Twenty years later, quite fortunately for all of us, Cooder did know what to do. At the urging of record mogul Nick Gold who knew of his frustrated passion, Cooder became our man in Havana. In 1996 he returned to Cuba, gathered, from retirement and near obscurity and humble circumstances, an unprecedented ensemble of the old legends (now in their 70s, 80s, or 90s); together, they recorded the album as "The Buena Vista Social Club." The record has now sold millions of copies and led to several fine spin-offs -- the best of which is 72-year-old lead vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer's eponymous album -- and to Wenders' remarkably moving documentary.

The most evocative aspect of Wenders' film is its tone. Without being pretentiously ponderous, it is, with perfect justification, gently reverential. The Buena Vista Social Club project was indeed a once-in-a-century musical salvaging and celebration and, even more, resuscitation of a tradition that resonates from as far afield as western Europe, the Ivory Coast, and even Arabia, through most musical genres of the New World. In his choice of desaturated color and sepia filters, Wenders perfectly captures the faded grandeur and graciousness of Havana and makes the viewer poignantly aware just how imperiled with extinction was the cultural flame of this music. We are able to participate in a rare moment of beauty rescued, not merely as archive but as a great tradition rediscovered and renewed. There is background footage of the once-glamorous architecture of the city, now dowdy and begrimed, the brashly '60s-shoebox tower of the Karl Marx Hotel with one of its giant marquee letters missing; a fading, scruffy sign that reads unpersuasively "The Revolution is Eternal"; row upon row of parked cars from the late '50s; and the palpable atmosphere of a once-vital sense of place that became confused, betrayed, estranged from its own moorings. (Author Martin Cruz Smith's most recent suspense novel is set in Havana, and he has said that during the months he spent there his feelings for the city were those "of a gentleman for a lady in distress.")

The music of "The Buena Vista Social Club," and now Wenders' documentary, are charged with the deeply satisfying thrill of salvation and restoration. Many viewers will be hard-put to remember when they've seen a documentary film that is so powerfully framed by loving focus and sheer joy and through which we feel such a strong sense of privileged witness. Whatever the mixed legacy may be of Cuba's flirtation with communism, and however her people may escort the "lady in distress" into the new millennium, we see here the triumphant revival of an honorable cultural tradition in which life and art are passionately inseparable.

The film would have benefited from more complete performance sequences. But there is enough to whet the appetite; the film is sure to boost the already popular original CD, Ferrer's recent release, and the other individual-artist offshoot productions.

The performers are the key. They have tremendous natural dignity and they are also having the time of their lives -- a time, it is quite clear, they never thought to see. Whether caressing the tristesse of a lush ballad or sashaying through the riffs of a hot improvisation, from their coming together for the studio sessions to their big concert dates in the summer of 1998 in Amsterdam and at Carnegie Hall, we are consistently delighted by their humor, touched by their modesty, and dazzled by their talent and the sensuous vitality of their music.


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