Buena Vista Social Club
directed by Wim Wenders
(Artisan, 1999)

It's tough talking about Cuba without bringing up the political rift that's loaded with patriotic platitudes on both sides of the great divide. Often forgotten are the cultural beauties -- faded, by some standards, but all the more precious to those who live with them every day, to those who create them from nothing.

Musician Ry Cooder and director Wim Wenders together have created a documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, a gem of Cuban music, life and spirituality that bears witness to vibrant talent.

Cooder and his wife traveled to Cuba in the 1970s. Twenty-odd years later he returns, hoping to capture some of the musical magic he remembers. Plans fall through, so Cooder decides to put the feelers out for the great musicians who held sway before the revolution. And, one by one, many of those who still are alive gather together. Cooder records them, and the resulting album, named after a long-gone Cuban social club, strikes a chord with the public.

And together, Cooder and Wenders let the musicians themselves tell their stories. Where have they been for all these years? Has anyone, even in their homeland, remembered them? Much has changed in Cuba, and these men, many now in their 80s and 90s, are on the fringes. But look around Wenders' film: The once-grand buildings, neglected for decades, have small pots of flowers on the balconies. The Eisenhower-era cars are spit-polished, the pothole-pitted streets are full of neighbors. As one of the men says, "Cubans are lucky" because they aren't distracted by material possessions, and pride in their identity is strong.

Buena Vista is a love poem to these musicians, who are seen going about their daily lives, and onstage in both Amsterdam and New York's Carnegie Hall. There's the always-dapper Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, "Cuba's Nat King Cole." There's Omara Portuondo, who remembers her parents singing duets at lunchtime years before. Add Ruben Gonzalez, a breathtaking pianist who didn't play for years; Eliades Ochoa, a guitarist who performed in the red-light district as a child to earn money for his parents; Barbarito Torres, master of the laud, a stringed instrument; and a host of other talents.

Wenders' love poem is composed not only with music, but also the lights, colors and sounds of modern Cuba. Surf pounding the shore, lovers walking narrow streets, humble lives lived with dignity, all show up in the music and are celebrated on film. It's the smaller moments that make Buena Vista: A woman joining Portuondo in song as she walks down the street, musicians Pio Leyva and "Puntillita" Licea one-upping each other at dominoes, Gonzalez playing for a gaggle of giggling little ballerinas. And a concert duet between Portuondo and Ferrer that brings her to tears; Ferrer reaches over during the raucous applause and, gently, wipes a tear away.

Life's been a struggle for them all, and it's been cruel to some. "All that passing the hat and the like ... it's in the past," Ochoa says. "You never forget it, but it's over." It's that blend of reminiscence and resilience that provides Buena Vista its most breathtaking moments. The experience, Cooder says in the film, "is one I've been trying for my whole life." Be thankful he and Wenders got it right, opening more eyes before these gifted spirits were gone.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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