Back in January, Lucy Walker was on the verge of debuting her fifth feature at Sundance — the high-profile sequel to Wim Wenders’ 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Buena Vista Social Club.” It was the best-possible launchpad, with a prime slot of January 20, the first full day of the festival. Sundance had good reason to bet on the title: It continued a story that grossed $23 million worldwide and created a platinum-selling album, and could carry fresh meaning with the changes in Cuban-American relations. As Sundance described it:
As the sun sets on the careers of Cuba’s finest musicians, the Buena Vista Social Club, we get their side of the whole story, which stretches back to the beginning of the Cuban Republic, through the Grammy-winning 1998 album and Wim Wenders’ film, up to the new Cuba today.
“We at Broad Green are disappointed that we will not be able to premiere this compelling documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival,” Broad Green said in a statement. “The film’s post production process has taken longer than expected and thus the decision was made to wait to introduce the film to audiences until it can be presented in its best possible iteration.”
Broad Green CEO Gabriel Hammond’s decision seemed bizarre: While there’s no shame in a documentary playing Sundance in less-than-final form — in 2013 Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” premiered as a work in progress, and went on to receive an Oscar nomination — pulling a film from the festival, much less moments before its debut, was virtually unheard of.
No one was more baffled than Walker. An ambitious, high-profile documentarian with a Sundance audience award and two Oscar nominations to her credit, she had rushed to the Sundance-submission finish line. She thought she had finished her movie.
And then the mystery deepened. Two weeks later, in a February 1 Instagram post, she commented, “it’s not clear for now if that work will be seen or appreciated which is the purgatorial pitstop we are in currently.” Later, she added: “Any minute now we’ll be able to explain! I’m still dreaming the beautiful film we made might be seen ever again.”
When Walker tried to reach Hammond after the festival, he was unreachable for a month, at which point movers arrived at her Venice office to cart editing equipment away.
Now, nearly six months later, it’s clear that the filmmaker never regained control of her movie. On April 22, she only learned that her film had a May 26 release date when she read about it on IndieWire. Broad Green released the overhauled film in 80 theaters for a two-week run. (Total gross: $123,445.) To this day, she hasn’t seen the film.
Walker has kept silent in the press, limiting herself to several carefully worded social media posts like this @lucywalkerfilm tweet:
Buena Vista Social Club Adios (my follow-up film) has been significantly changed (shots & scenes including narrative spine removed, other scenes added so it’s overall longer 😱) since I finished it before Sundance. Apparently it’s being released this week in lots of theaters (for a doc). I haven’t seen it myself but I hope audiences enjoy it.
What went wrong? We talked to a number of participants in this debacle, and no one comes out ahead.