Buena Vista Social Club (1999): The Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray]

Wim Wenders’ ode to the music of Cuba and the Buena Vista Social Club is a brilliant and poetic documentary that depicts the art of music as something that’s soothing to the soul and can ease even the most tumultuous situations. Wenders’ documentary is very much about music with a lot of performances, but it’s also a thoughtful and deliberately paced meditation on the meaning of music. It defines something within the subjects we meet in “Buena Vista Social Club.” And even in spite of the economic turmoil, it’s kept people within the society of Cuba going forward and doing their best to show their love for the art form.

There are even a couple of American citizens profiled within the documentary that have willingly come to Cuba to perfect their craft and satiate their hunger for this music. Wenders’ documentary profiles the various members of “Buena Vista Social Club” exploring how their band started and how they fared in the future. The whole film leads up to a massive concert in New York City where the band fully realizes what impact they’ve had on culture. Though there is a small snippet of a concert in the climax, “Buena Vista Social Club” is more about the passion for music, and relishes in vignettes involving the band members and their personal lives. They all have their own personal rituals and tragic back stories that involve music in some form. Wenders is very good about lingering on these people over and over, following them as they walk through various ghettos of Cuba with a sense of pride, singing to themselves.

It’s clear that they’re all very renowned and respected among their people, with a lot of them either breaking in to song with passersby or quietly acknowledging a lot of the nuances of their home. They even sit around discussing a lot of their pre-concert rituals and how they managed to create many of their most familiar songs. Singer Compay Segundo even discusses how he battled a hang over by making consommé with chicken necks and garlic that he ate all the time. Wenders prefers to focus more on music and less on the politics that fueled this kind of music, some of which was about dissent and trying to endure tough times. There is the mention of Che Guevera and Fidel Castro in the opening, but that’s as far as it goes.

That might be an advantage or a caveat for folks that are more interested in how movements are made with music. Wenders is more about the music and how life in Cuba has a sense of whimsy, rather than extrapolating the inherent economical and political turmoil. That hurts the overall purpose of the documentary as Wenders is more about romanticizing rather than digging for a deeper ideal behind the art form. That said, “Buena Vista Social Club” is a charming and beautiful film with a touching finale. Wenders is intent on paying tribute to the music and spends the final scenes emphasizing the influence of the group, and their introduction to a new world in America outside the confines of their country. It’s a worthwhile gem for music historians and lovers of the genre.

The Blu-Ray from Criterion features a brand new booklet for collectors with full color stills and information about the film. There’s an audio commentary with Wim Wenders which is ported over from the original Artisan DVD, as well as a thirty minute interview with the director the follows it. There’s a wealth of information with the commentary and interview, discussing the production, and the last minute addition of the concert footage. There’s so much more explored here with personal stories about the friends he made while filming, and how his crew used camcorders for some scenes to evade the Cuban government who wouldn’t let them film as actual filmmakers.

There are a ton of radio interviews with a slew of musicians from the film including Eliades Ochoa, Manual “Puntillita” Licea, Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Barbarito Torres, Pio Leyva, Ruben Gonzalez, Manuel Galban, and Alberto “Virgilio” Valdes. All interviews garner stills from the film and all run ninety minutes total. There is an interview with Compay Segundo who appears in a one minute interview from the Spanish TV show “Las Claves.” Segundo discusses the influences of his music, his childhood and life, and some history about Cuban music. There are some deleted scenes from the original Artisan DVD with yellow subtitles interlaced. There is more footage of the concerts, recording sessions, and a longer interview with Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. There’s also more footage with Alberto Korda and his photographs. There’s finally the original theatrical trailer for the film.