We gave it a B-
In the decade since wings of Desire (1988), director Wim Wenders has been floating on angel wings of irrelevance, and so it’s refreshing to see him make a movie like Buena Vista Social Club. It’s a documentary about the great, aging pop musicians who were part of the son de Cuba movement — players and singers whose very presence seems rooted in the earth. Reunited for a 1998 concert at Carnegie Hall, these elegant, flashing-eyed men (and one woman) seem to burn with happiness. The opening number, ”Chan Chan,” which becomes the film’s theme, incarnates what’s infectious yet haunting about this music. The lush, turbulent flow of drum and guitar, the seductively syncopated melody — the song has the declarative simplicity of sublime pop, yet with an undertone of Spanish fatalism. The performance makes you want to know who the band members are: where their music comes from, and how it played out across a tempestuous century of Cuban life.
Astonishingly, the film reveals almost nothing of this. The American musician Ry Cooder first reunited the son de Cuba players for a triumphant 1997 album. Wenders, teaming up with Cooder (who has scored two of his films), takes his cameras down to Havana and lets them roll through the crumbling but still monumental streets. The Cuban light is magical, and under its pinkish glow we see men and women at work and at play, basking in a life of casual sensuality and leisure. During the interviews, the musicians smile, puff on lusciously oversize cigars, and gently reminisce about meetings and performances from decades ago. Yet the conversations are perfunctory to the point of appearing merely promotional. The Cuba we see in Buena Vista Social Club is, enticingly, about as far as you can get from a culture of Dilberts, yet we can’t help but be aware that this isn’t the whole story — that Wenders has fatally downplayed the iron grip of Castro’s regime. I raise the point not because I wanted to see a political tract, but because what the film leaves unexplained is how this joyous musical outpouring, which predated the revolution, could fare under a system with a pathological distrust of beauty. Still, the music itself needs no explanation; it slithers and spangles. B-