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Laramie Movie Scope:
Buena Vista Social Club

A story about resurrecting some vintage Cuban musicians

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 19, 1999 -- Show business is all about comebacks. Everybody loves a comeback, like John Travolta's comeback in "Pulp Fiction." Well, here's a much bigger comeback, a bunch of Cuban musicians, forgotten for years, and some of them older than dirt, make a comeback, and a smashing one at that.

"The Buena Vista Social Club" is a movie about the story of the making of an album of the same name. The reason a classy filmmaker like Wim Wenders ("Wings of Desire") is involved with this project has to do with the fact that musicians Joachim and Ry Cooder, who've done some soundtracks for Wenders, were so instrumental in this project.

The film itself doesn't give you much background on this particular brand of music, which I would call Cuban soul, for that, you have to explore the film's web page, where it does give the background missing from the film (there's a link below). Judging from the music and the words (it is mostly in Spanish and captioned), it is a kind of peasant music. The words are extremely earthy, but the music is lyrical, expressive and richly varied, and, as they used to say in the old bandstand days, you can dance to it.

Wenders doesn't give you much of a hint as to what's going on as the film starts up, but there's plenty of music. I begin to wonder if there are any young musicians in Cuba. Some of these guys are in their 90s. Then, the film starts dropping hints. One of the first musicians you meet is singer Ibrahim Ferrer. A fabulous singer, Ferrer is called the Nat King Cole of Cuba. He has been largely forgotten and is currently shining shoes, having retired from music. He is persuaded to join the band.

Ferrer had lost his mother and father by the time he was 12 and had to make it on his own. He said times were tough then (before Castro and communism took over Cuba) not easy like it is now (the camera shows us grinding poverty as he says this). The Cubans have forsaken material possessions, not by choice, but they say they are happy. The camera shows us other information, however, which indicates maybe Cubans would like some more prosperity.

This is not your ordinary documentary, with a voice droning on an on in the background, explaining what you are looking at, the historical context, etc. Wenders' idea was to let the music carry the story, and it does, for the most part. Still, some background would have been nice. One by one we meet these remarkable musicians, we hear, in their own words, how their musical roots grew, what kind of careers they had, what happened to them over the years. Some of them had not played an instrument in years before getting together for the studio sessions in Havana with the Cooders. Given the opportunity, however, their magnificent talents flower again, like a cactus in the desert after a very rare rainfall.

There is plenty of music, both studio and concert footage shot at Carnegie Hall and in Amsterdam. The music is marvelous, passionate and timeless. I don't know, for instance, if these musicians represent a tradition that is fading out or not. I suspect it is. If that is the case, it is a tragedy. That sort of thing would be good to know. Are there any young musicians playing this stuff? Wenders doesn't explain much, but he does keep that good music coming at you. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 1999 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)