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Anatomy of a Disaster: Inside the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ Sequel That Became a Fiasco

Lucy Walker is one of her generation's brightest filmmakers, but could only watch as years of toil went down in flames.

Barbarito Torres (r) Laoud Player and Other Members of the Cuban Band Buena Vista Social Club Perform Their 'Adios Tour' (goodbye Tour) at Knight Concert Hall in Miami Florida Usa 22 October 2015 Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club Has Been Touring the Globe in Different Forms and Combinations Since 1997 They Go on Tour One Final Time with a Series of Concerts and Related Cultural Events That Will Celebrate the Orquestas Storied Journey As Ambassadors For Cuban Music United States MiamiUsa Buena Vista Social Club Miami - Oct 2015

Buena Vista Social Club at Miami’s Knight Concert Hall


While waiting for access, and concerts, Walker had time to shoot the VR short “A History of Cuban Dance,” which premiered at Sundance 2016. The filmmakers also found the site of the original Buena Vista Social Club (with the help of the architect of the original recording, Cuban musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez), which Wenders never located. They pored through archive footage from the Wenders film and found previously unused material of the band rehearsing, as well as footage of the original recording sessions.

The film team finally flew to Cuba in May 2016, where the band performed two final Havana concerts. Over Walker’s objections, one precious night was filmed by Cuban TV and Broad Green’s marketing department videoed the band members via iPhone, leaving less time for Walker’s BAFTA-nominated cinematographer Enrique Chediak and his HD Alexa and Amira cameras. But it wasn’t nearly as much footage as they’d hoped for. The real peak of the movie was the 2015 Miami concert at Knight Concert Hall, where the band finally played.

The Lucy Walker Version

Walker and her editing team rushed through the edit, pushing past their original deadlines well into December. They showed a rough cut to Sundance, which gave the movie a prime spot on the opening weekend, and to Jaie Laplante, programmer for the Miami Film Festival, who happily booked the film (although Broad Green pulled the film from Miami as well).

Lucy Walker2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards, Santa Monica 25 Feb 2017

Lucy Walker at the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards


“I was very moved by the film,” said Laplante. “I had goosebumps when I finished watching it. The cut I saw was solid and very clear, it had a really strong narrative drive. The overwhelming theme was, while we were waiting for the Miami Havana relationship to heal and get better and change, it hadn’t gotten better. Time had run out. And the people who were dreaming for an opportunity to reunite with Cubans in Miami had run out of time; they had passed away.” The Walker version also included a 10-minute sequence about the charged custody battle over Elián González 17 years ago, which is missing from the final film.

In December, Walker took the cut to Havana to show the band. They were not happy. They wanted less politics. They wanted less-candid treatment of the older band members’ infirmities. They wanted more concert footage. They didn’t want the film to be seen in its current form — and they had a contract to back it up.

Unfortunately, Walker was unaware of the band’s cutting rights until December 2016. That meant she was directing a film in which the subjects essentially had final cut — a scenario that makes sense for EPKs, not documentaries.

“We were striving to find a compromise to keep Lucy’s vision intact while keeping the band supportive and happy about the film,” said Kilberg.

Walker had little time to work with the band for compromise; Broad Green felt the pressing need to deliver finished assets to multiple international buyers, who acquired rights in Cannes 2015. One week before Sundance, Broad Green took a whack at making the cuts the band demanded.

The filmmakers were appalled by the primitive results. Gone was some 20 minutes of the film’s socio-cultural narrative. (The final longer edit, including additional concert footage, was released by Broad Green in 80 theaters — wide for a documentary, but necessary to qualify for various deal guarantees overseas.)

READ MORE: The Broad Green Layoffs: Why Good Movies Aren’t Enough to Avoid The Startup Curse

For Sundance, Walker could have chosen to screen the Broad Green quickie edit — but only if she also signed a full damage release, which would leave her vulnerable to legal action. She refused, leaving the decision about pulling the film to Hammond.

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