If you’ve been anywhere on this planet in the last two years, you’ve certainly heard at least some of the catchy tunes on the Buena Vista Social Club album, produced in Cuba by world music wizard Ry Cooder. With his documentary of the same name, king of the road Wim Wenders offers a music doc about the band which borrows heavily from the road movie aesthetic he is best known for.
Structured as a journey, Wenders’ film highlights, one by one, the Cuban musicians brought together by Cooder (an old friend, who has scored several Wenders films), and traces the story of their Grammy-award-winning collaboration. Long travelling shots through the streets of Havana alternate with concert sequences in Europe and America, and candid interviews with the ‘Club’ members. Ruben Gonzalez, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and most of the rest of these first-rate jazzmen in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, had been living in obscurity for decades until Cooder, searching for the roots of Cuban soul, tracked them down. Wenders began shooting long after this search was over, but he intercuts studio sequences from the recording of a new album (featuring singer Ferrer), with the concert footage, to lead the viewer’s imagination, as much as possible, back to the feeling of discovery of the 1996 recordings.
It’s not clear why Wenders, who is after all an accomplished feature filmmaker, chose to make the film in a purposely sloppy style. As it stands, the doc is dominated by ragged editing and superficially brief glimpses into the lives of the musicians, each of whom could probably fill an entire film with their stories of decades of struggle followed by a fairy-tale comeback and world-wide success. But the effortless professionalism of the old men – and the one woman on the album, singer Omara Portuono – shines through, and their songs, full of love and energy, are ageless.
The elderly Cubans’ pride in their country is also very clear. Wenders tries to match this, not always successfully, with filmic references to politics, including period footage about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and quick shots of graffiti slogans like “this revolution is eternal.” This doc certainly could not be taken seriously as a portrait of life in Cuba today, and it’s debatable whether Wenders succeeds at going beyond the surface of the picturesque decay of Havana and the sudden turns of bad and good luck in the musicians’ lives. But in the end, it’s the music that counts: non-stop rhythm for 100 minutes. And when the beaming musicians finally make it to New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall at the end of the film, and symbolically conquer the USA by unfurling the Cuban flag onstage, it’s possible to forgive Wenders his weaknesses, and grin right back at the screen.