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Buena Vista Social Club

review by James S.


Rated G

Studio: Artisan

Running Time: 105 minutes

Starring: Ry Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, Omaro Portuondo, Compay Segundo

Directed by Wim Wenders

Retail Price: $19.99

Features: Audio Commentary with Wim Wenders , Theatrical Trailer, Musician/Crew Information, Production Notes, Interactive Menus, Additional Scenes

Specs: Enhanced for 16:9 television, 5.1 Dolby Digital English Surround, 5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish Surround, English Subtitles, Chapter Search

The world can thank Ry Cooder. The guitarist headed down to Cuba to capture the essence of Cuban music. With son Joachim in tow, Ry recorded and played with legendary musicians unknown to the American audience. His efforts resulted in the Grammy winning album The Buena Vista Social Club. The video by the same title, directed by Wim Wenders (who incidentally worked with Cooder on the film Paris, Texas) follows the Cuban musicians in their homeland of Cuba as well as at a few concert tour stops in Amsterdam and New York City.

The Buena Vista Social Club contains documentary style footage of the artists recording and telling about their upbringings. The Spanish dialogue, which is subtitled in English, is interspersed with concert footage. Aside from the music, the most compelling aspect of the film has to be the one-on-one conversations with the musicians. In Cuba, you'll listen as they tell of their musical histories against a backdrop of poverty stricken Cuban lifestyle. Then follow the group to New York City where they marvel at the immensity and beauty of a city completely unlike their homeland.

Even if you've never given Cuban music a chance, you must hear the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. The vocals of Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portundo blend wonderfully with musicians Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, and the father and son Cooder tandem. At the very least check out the CD or one of the follow-up recordings of Ferrer, Portundo, or the Afro-Cuban All-Stars.


Unfortunately, Buena Vista Social Club was filmed on Sony DigiData Camera Mini DV. It shows. Much of the movie has that handheld camera look to it. While some scenes look good, most have high contrast footage that makes it look like a home movie. Don't expect the soothing appearance of a Hollywood picture. The lighting is either too bright or too dark. The concert footage of the Amsterdam stop is washed out and lacks vibrant colors.

Where the video breaks down, the audio excels. The concert and recording footage is captured in full stereo sound, and the production quality of the audio track is apparent. Full stereo sound is coupled with high energy bass tones and a rich midrange, provided by the likes of Ferrer and Portundo. The commentary is clear, and Spanish speaking listeners will be able to pick up the dialogue easily. For the Spanish deficient crowd, such as myself, the movie is subtitled in English.

The film clocks in at 105 minutes, but to add extra value to the movie plenty of extras were thrown in. A few extra scenes deleted from the original film are present. They include extra songs and some additional commentary about the beginnings of the project. Also, the main feature has an optional running commentary with Wim Wenders where he talks about the production of the film and his impressions of the musicians. If you want to learn more about the musicians, short bios of each is included. Likewise, you can read about the works of Wenders and Cooder. Finally, production notes detail the making of the film.

Buena Vista Social Club is best enjoyed by fans of the CD. If you buy the DVD first, you may find the documentary good for a single viewing and never watch it again. This isn't a concert film in the traditional sense where the music plays on. Rather, as Wenders calls it himself, this "musicumentary" is a mixture of great music with interesting dialogue. The film stays somewhere between the two extremes, so music in constantly interrupted with dialogue and vice versa. As I watched the concert footage, I wanted more concert footage. As I intently viewed the interviews, I was pulled in by what the musicians had to say. The switching back and forth attempts to appeal to everyone but I feel in degenerates the flow of the movie in spots.

(3/5, NOT included in final score)




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