Documentary captures once-censored sound

June 30, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Buena Vista Social Club" is a movie so full of heroes that it's difficult to know whom to single out. Its subjects -- a group of elderly Cuban musicians who re-unite in an expression of passion, commitment and solidarity -- are heroes, if only for surviving years of neglect and cultural amnesia.

Ry Cooder, one of America's most eclectic popular musicians, is a hero for seeking out these important and forgotten folk musicians and not only recording them but also assembling them for two legendary live performances.

And German director Wim Wenders ("Wings of Desire"), is certainly heroic for restraining his formidable filmmaking style to allow the musicians of "Buena Vista Social Club" to carry the film with transporting sensuality and verve.

From the very first strains of "Chan Chan," the song that opens Wenders' documentary, "Buena Vista Social Club" pulses with the sinuous rhythms and melancholy poetry of son, a musical style indigenous to Cuba's countryside. By the time the song builds slowly to a steady, seductive burn, filmgoers can't help but be besotted with the music's soulful allure.

And the best is yet to come. Through a series of interviews with the members of the band, as well as candid sessions in the recording studio and those rare performances, Wenders introduces the audience to the extraordinary characters behind son music and, obliquely, to the social and historical forces that have kept them under wraps since the 1950s.

Indeed, politics in "Buena Vista Social Club" may be too oblique -- we never get a clear idea of why or how the music was censored -- but, as these resilient and spirited artists make clear, the important thing is that son has been resuscitated.

"Buena Vista Social Club" (the name is taken from the band Cooder assembled in 1996) opens with an interview with Compay Segundo, age 90, whom Cooder calls "the last of the best, the oracle, the source."

Intercutting between the faded indigo and ocher elegance of Havana and a performance in Amsterdam, the film shows us the faces of the musicians we will later know more in-depth: Ruben Gonzalez, the distinguished pianist; Omara Portuondo, the only woman in the band, known as the Edith Piaf of bolero music; Eliades Ochoa, an imposing-looking guitar player in an equally imposing cowboy hat; and Ibrahim Ferrer, 70, who will emerge as the star of "Buena Vista Social Club" as Wenders documents his recording of the triumphant album that resulted from his rediscovery.

There are more, and as "Buena Vista Social Club" progresses, they all explain how they came to play music and how their particular instruments contribute to son's distinctive sound.

Each musician is interviewed in his home, or on the streets of Havana, or in its parks, gymnasiums and cigar factories, resulting in an evocation of the city that is at once beautiful and impoverished, crumbling with desperation and bursting with life and hope.

By far the most affecting moments in the film are those brief intimacies that transpire between people making the music they love, such as when the courtly Ferrer delicately wipes a tear from Portuondo's cheek during a duet.

"Buena Vista Social Club" ends on the group's now-legendary performance at Carnegie Hall last year. In the film's most moving scene, Ferrer is shown walking in midtown at twilight, rhapsodizing about the city's hard beauty. "I'm under the spell of this," he says. By the end of this intoxicating portrait of Cuba, its people and their music, so are we.

`Buena Vista Social Club'

Directed by Wim Wenders

Rated G

Running time: 105 minutes

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 6/30/99

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