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June 11, 1999 2:00 AM
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REVIEW: Wenders' Inspired Music Doc "Buena Vista Social Club"

REVIEW: Wenders' Inspired Music Doc "Buena Vista Social Club"

by Danny Lorber



By Danny Lorber

"The Buena Vista Social Club," a new documentary by Wim Wenders, takes a
marvelous look at a group of Cuban singers and instrumentalists, most of
whom are in their 70's, 80's and even 90's. These grand musicians have
played music all of their lives, but they hardly made a cent for it -
they've been stuck in low wage day jobs and living with repressed
freedom because of Cuba's communist regime.


The musicians were brought together by Ry Cooder, a composer and
guitarist, who, amongst his numerous movie soundtrack compositions,
created the scores for Wenders' "Paris, Texas" and "The End of
Violence
." Cooder spent time in Cuba absorbing the vibrant music there,
and he was so impressed with these particular artists that he felt the
world deserved to hear their sounds, so he recorded an album with them.


The record, entitled "Buena Vista Social Club," sold a million copies
worldwide, which caused for Cooder to return to Cuba to make another
one. He brought Wenders down with him to film the event, and what has
emerged is an engaging look at music being created and the quirky
personalities of the creators.


It's fascinating to watch the musicians in the recording studio. It's
clear they're new to such high tech equipment and new to their music
being taken seriously. Cooder serves as some sort of father figure and
they're grateful and reverential towards him. Finally, someone is giving
them a chance to really profit from their talents.


Interweaved with the music is interview segments with the individual
musicians. Wenders exposes some interesting old artists who have
struggled through life but have remained enraptured by little events -
they're full of good feelings and memories. The musicians don't talk too
much about the struggle of living under Castro's regime -- they're more
interested in telling us offbeat yarns of the sexual type.


Wenders doesn't press his subjects on discussing more serious topics,
but he adds weight to the film just by having his crew walk around the
strange streets of Havana (which are both gloriously colorful and
downright squalid) with side trips to towns like Santiago, recreating
the youths of the musicians now given a new lease on life. We've seen
these types of images of Cuba before -- they're full of rueful longing
-- but Wenders' take avoids cliché because of the fullness of his
images. Rarely has a documentary had such a rich, colorful visual
scheme.


"The Buena Vista Social Club" is mostly about music and Wenders
certainly knows this is where the best material lies. These musicians
are so good that they fully justify the standing ovations they received
during their climactic trip to New York at a sold-out show at Carnegie
Hall. Ibrahim Ferrer, the Santiago-born 70-year-old singer, knocks out
silky, ingenious renditions of Cuban rhythms - he's the stuff of a pop
wonder, if only he was discovered earlier. The 90-year-old, Siboney-born
Compay Segundo, who has an intensely raspy voice after "being a cigar
smoker for 85 years," endows the film with humor and presence, as he
rides around in the back seat of an aging convertible asking the local
Havana folk facetiously to direct him to the Buena Vista Social Club.
Compay, who was born Francisco Repilado, not only continues to play
music constantly, but he is even credited with inventing his own
instrument, the armonico, a seven-string guitar. The 80-year-old Ruben
Gonzales is fabulous as the piano player and he offers us one of the
films most beautiful stories -- reminiscing about his first piano. Omara
Portuondo, the one female of the group, sings a exciting, fluid solos
with Ferrer they have a great connection on stage together, the equal
of any similar duo one can thing of.


In the end, "The Buena Vista Social Club" lands gigs in New York and
Amsterdam, playing in front of full houses and receiving huge adulation
for the first time in their lives. Despite their still difficult life
style in Cuba, the group has finally been given a chance at success --
and they relish it. It's such a joy to see Ferrer belt out his lyrics in
Carnegie Hall, so much so you feel like personally thanking Cooder for
bringing him there yourself.

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