BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB
Directed by Wim Wenders
With the Buena Vista Social Club, Ry Cooder and Joachim Cooder
Distributed by Artisan Entertainment
Opens in New York June 4th
When I reviewed Wim Wenders' LISBON STORY two years ago, I suggested that his recent work may have been unfairly dismissed. A few months later, I felt like eating my words once I saw what an embarrassing mess THE END OF VIOLENCE turned out to be. After making some of the best films of the 70s and 80s, Wenders' talent has apparently vanished into a sinkhole of New Age mush and pompous ruminations on the death of cinema and the evils of "image addiction." (We can be sure that UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD and THE END OF VIOLENCE didn't produce any new image addicts!) I'm happy to report that this unassuming but artful documentary proves that he is still capable of making an unpretentious film.
Guitarist (and Wenders soundtrack composer) Ry Cooder had been fascinated by Cuban music ever since the 70s, when he traveled to Havana in order to track down some of the musicians who played on his favorite records. A few years ago, he returned in order to produce and play guitar on an album by the Buena Vista Club, a group of elderly musicians. When their album, released in the U.S. by the prestigious Nonesuch label, takes off, they get to tour Europe and finally realize their dream of playing Carnegie Hall.
While Wenders may not be as accomplished or prolific a documentarian as his New German Cinema colleague Werner Herzog, BUENA VISTA CLUB marks his fifth return to the field. Before making features, he was a film critic - his highly original reviews and articles are collected in the book EMOTION PICTURES - and several of his documentaries continue this work by other means. The travelogue TOKYO-GA concluded with an extended homage to Ozu, LIGHTNING OVER WATER served as an elegy to Nichols Ray, and CHAMBRE 666 recorded other filmmakers' thoughts on the future of cinema. Although both LIGHTNING OVER WATER and TOKYO-GA were extremely personal works - the latter is even something of a diary - Wenders is now willing to make room for his subjects lead.
Despite its impersonal tone, BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB doesn't look or feel like a bland PBS program. In a 1970 essay about rock concert films, Wenders complained that these films' "own lack of interest, their displeasure or their contempt are far more in evidence than their ostensible subjects. Even if the attitude of those filming isn't based entirely on rejection...they are based on the idea that nothing is so good that it doesn't need to be enhanced or exaggerated by them," going on to make specific criticisms about their failure to capture the tension and moods of the music they capture. As he suggests, music films' attempts to find visual counterpoint to their soundtracks usually fail, but Wenders' cuts between studio and live versions of the same songs and use of Steadicam dolly shots around performers in a recording studio are extremely effective. Unlike the films he criticized, BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB radiates respect for its subjects. By having the musicians - a remarkably friendly and down-to-Earth bunch - speak about their lives in the midst of Havana's lively streets, it implies a great deal about the context of present-day Cuban life from which their music emerged.
Given the ambivalence Wenders has often expressed about video, I'm surprised that he chose to shoot BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB in this format. Despite the amount of hype we've heard about digital video lately, it remains an extremely limited form. While films like Hal Hartley's THE BOOK OF LIFE, Fred Kelemen's FATE and Péter Gothar's VASKA have managed to make beautiful images out of these limitations - blurred and bleeding colors, low resolution - I can't count the number of recent documentaries whose use of video just makes them look cheap and ugly. (Michael Moore's THE BIG ONE was a particularly glaring example.) Unfortunately, BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB does suffer from the video-to-film transfer: the image looks soft and extremely grainy, while the colors of exteriors are distorted. As a result, it would probably look better on home video, especially through a system hooked up to a good stereo, even though it's designed to be shown in 1.85. Still, Wenders' direction is skillful enough and his subjects fascinating enough to transcend these flaws. I'd like to hope that he could bring this sort of modest craftsmanship to his next feature, but I'm not holding my breath. We might all be happier if he followed Herzog's lead by sticking to documentaries from now on.