Traveling from the streets of Havana to the stage of Carnegie Hall, this revelatory documentary captures a forgotten generation of Cuba’s brightest musical talents as they enjoy an unexpected brush with world fame. The veteran vocalists and instrumentalists collaborated with American guitarist and roots-music champion Ry Cooder to form the Buena Vista Social Club, playing a jazz-inflected mix of cha-cha, mambo, bolero, and other traditional Latin American styles, and recording an album that won a Grammy and made them an international phenomenon. In the wake of this success, director Wim Wenders filmed the ensemble’s members—including golden-voiced Ibrahim Ferrer and piano virtuoso Rubén González—in a series of illuminating interviews and live performances. The result is one of the most beloved music documentaries of the 1990s, and an infectious ode to a neglected corner of Cuba’s prerevolutionary heritage.
I'm a sucker for music documentaries. I love when a filmmaker follows a musician around, where we get to see a song or album come to life from scratch, then recorded and performed live, while learning about their background, life as a youngster, and getting involved in their craft. It just fascinates me on every level. When filmmaker Wim Wenders travels into the music documentary realm with legendary musician Ry Cooder, you pay attention, as we all did back in 1999 with Buena Vista Social Club.
This is not your typical music documentary though. It doesn't follow an album or artist from humble beginnings to superstardom, nor does it showcase the birth of a new album from a popular band. Buena Vista Social Club was a club in Cuba where musicians went to hang out, play music, and write songs. This club fell into obscurity and became something of myth and legend, however when Ry Cooder traveled to Cuba to record music, he met a lot of these old musicians, including Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Rubén González to name a few, and decided to get Wim Wenders to document them making an album and performing two live concerts, one in Amsterdam, and one in New York City.
The results are stunning, as we get to see these old musicians get the recognition they have always deserved, but were unable to, due to the political climate between the USA and Cuba. Through interviews with these musicians, we hear their stories of the music scene in Cuba, their personal tragedies and triumphs, and just how music plays the most important part in their lives. Seeing these musicians work on their music and appreciate the theory and its history is something magical. These musicians aren't making millions of dollars or performing in the latest soda commercial. They are simply performing their music, because of what it makes them and their listeners feel and love the art of music.
Later in the film, we get to see them in concert, which is glorious. In New York, playing to the people chanting their names and singing their praises, these Cuban musicians are shocked and take it all in, as they are not used to this kind of reception in their home country. The emotions these musicians conjure up in their songs are real, as evident in this film on stage where Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo are performing together on stage, and she is so moved by all that is around her, that tears fall from her face, where Ibrahim wipes them away. It's little moments like this that make Buena Vista Social Club wonderful and memorable.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Buena Vista Social Club comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion and is Region A Locked. There is a Criterion booklet with an essay by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, along with information on the crew and technical information on the film. The disc is housed in a hard clear, plastic case with spine #866.
Buena Vista Social Club comes with a new 1080p HD transfer and is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The original theatrical film was presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and was shot on a Sony Betacam and MiniDVs in order to get up close and personal with the subjects of the film in 1998. Being filmed on different cameras with a handheld like of movement in the documentary world, the detail isn't super sharp or clear all the time. There are focus issues and heavy grain at certain times, but that's all part of the journey here to give a raw and realistic look at this concert and its musicians.
In certain shots that are well lit or in natural light, the detail is fairly sharp and vivid, showcasing individual hairs, sweat, and facial marks very clearly. Instruments and some of the worn buildings in Cuba look incredible and show all of its imperfections. Colors are true and realistic, however there is a muted filter during some of the concert scenes. Grain gives the movie its filmic look, which is nice, keeping the black levels deep and inky and skin tones natural. There are no major instances of any compression issues to speak of, leaving this Criterion video presentation with great marks.
This release comes with a fantastic DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that hits all of the right notes from start to finish. Being a documentary, don't expect explosions, gun shots, robots, or zombie attacks here. Instead, we get a wonderful film with great dialogue, interviews, and spectacular live music. Ambient noises pick up city and nature sounds nicely, and the audience cheers at the concert fully immerse you in the center of the action.
The main spotlight is the music itself, which brings the bass and low-end full force, just like you'd expect from live performance. Every instrument is well balanced and just rocks. Bass never goes into rocky territory, but is smooth and flawless. It's a lovely sound, which makes you feel you have a front row seat at a live show. Dialogue is always clear and easy to follow, and free of any pops, cracks, hiss, and shrills, leaving this Criterion audio presentation with great marks.
Audio Commentary - Wim Wenders discusses making the film, the difficulties of shooting in Cuba, working with Ry Cooder and the other musicians. It's a good listen if you're a fan of the film.
Interview with Wim Wenders (HD, 26 Mins.) - This interview was made for this release at the end of 2016, where Wim discusses making the film, working with Ry Cooder and the other musicians. He also goes into working in Cuba and some fun stories with the other muscians.
Interview with Compay Segundo (HD, 60 Mins.) - This is an interview from 1998 with the musician from a TV show, where Segundo discusses working on the film and the music.
Radio Interviews (HD, 95 Mins.) - There are a ton of interviews with most of the musicians involved in the film here, where they talk about the movie, Cuba, its history, and the music.
Additional Scenes (HD, 23 Mins.) - There are four scenes here, two of which include performances. These are worth watching.
Trailer (HD, 2 Mins.) - Trailer for the film.
Criterion Booklet - Here is the Criterion booklet that features cast, crew, and technical information, as well as an essay on the film by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
Buena Vista Social Club is a fantastic documentary by Wim Wenders that features a stunning soundtrack by Ry Cooder and a ton of excellent Cuban musicians. If you love music, you're gonna love this documentary. Criterion has knocked it out of the park here with the video and sound presentations, and the extras are all top notch. Highly Recommended!