Registering the Registry 2020: Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we’ll spend our time together meeting and appreciating a group of Cuban son musicians who never got their full due during their heyday, only to receive a boost into international superstardom during their senior years in the 1990s. From music producers Nick Gold and Ry Cooder, and director Wim Wenders, it’s 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club! Come on in and dig the old-new sound!

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We’re doing another movie rooted in a lot of history, which means it’s history crash course time! The place: Cuba in the 1940s, an island whose varied musical traditions from all corners coalesce in the great city of Havana. Dance and social clubs are plentiful all across the city, and on any given night you can wander into a private engagement to hear all manner of music fill the night — the son cubano, the bolero, the danzón, Cuban takes on American jazz and waltz trends, the mambo, the filin. It is a time when Cuban’s musicians prove particularly experimental within their art, and a combination of tourists from and travel to the United States, Latin America, and West Africa only leads to further diversification of the form. Many names emerge from the pack across a two decade period, from inventive pianist Rubén González to talented son vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, from energetic performer Pio Leyva to the ever-varying Omara Portuondo, and of course incomparable greats like Puntillita and Compay Segundo. Many of these artists are either on the verge of international popularity, or at least massively popular enough in their homeland to justify local immortalization.

Then comes the Revolution. Though judgement of its effects and consequences are beyond our concern today (and indeed beyond the concern of our highlighted film), we can say it served as a massive roadblock for the island’s popular music scene. The United States’ embargo against Cuba stop travel and export to the nearest global cultural power, and Castro-backed programs favoring revolutionary art put pressure on performers to give up the old ways. Clubs and dance halls are shuttered en mass as decadent symbols of the Western power structures the revolution was meant to stand against. It must be understood, many of the above-mentioned artists and their hundreds of contemporaries did not stop performing or recording, nor did many of them experience any serious dip in popularity amongst their home audience. A few even maintained audiences across Latin America and West Africa, and traveled abroad to perform accordingly. These setbacks, however, served as accelerants on the natural phenomena of changing trends, accelerants which disrupted the usual progression of legacy teachings as the artists of the 40s and 50s entered their elder years. Cuban music in the American mode mutated away from the son, Cuban music at home took on an entirely different character, and when the time came for these musicians to enter retirement, they faded into obscurity for all except those most dedicated to chronicling and celebrating the island’s musical heritage.

Compay Segundo
Rubén González
Ibrahim Ferrer

Happily, one of those keeping watch was Juan de Marcos González, son to Marcos González Mauriz of tres-playing bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez’s company, and keenly interested in his home’s traditions after a youth spent obsessed over rock in the American and British forms. Juan de Marcos’ overseas contacts included the independent record producer Nick Gold, head of the popular World Circuit Records label, and their communication in the mid-1990s enabled a great undertaking: González would assemble a large number of Cuban’s musical talents from across the previous six decades, and Gold would import his own stable of African musicians representing the same period, to assemble the Afro-Cuban All-Stars. Also invited to this endeavor was Ry Cooder, the famed American session guitarist who could serve as a recognizable (and English-speaking) face for the project when it came time for international distribution. When all parties assembled, there was but one hiccup to the process: Gold’s contracted African musicians could not obtain their visas, and were completely unable to reach Cuba. Determined to push forward, all assembled parties agreed to a new course of action; the Afro-Cuban All-Stars would still record their planned block with a greater emphasis on Cuban styles, but Cooder and González would scour Havana for the true greats to play on a related project specifically aimed to revive that twenty-year glory period from the 40s and 50s.

Yeah, an entire TV documentary spot about a documentary, in the middle of a piece about a documentary. Sue me.

Though their group assembled across a mere three days, this isn’t to imply it came at all easy. They found Ibrahim Ferrer shining shoes while out on his daily walk. Rubén González insisted his fingers had grown too arthritic to ever play piano again. Compay Segundo flat out insisted nobody could possibly want to hear an artist pushing his nineties on record. Assemble they did, though, and assemble with a respectable number of musicians who came to prominence in the years following the Cuban Revolution — eccentric timbales player Amadito Valdés, laúd virtuoso Barbarito Torres, cowboy hat-donning Eliades Ochoa with his distinctive custom guitar. Thus gathered, the group with centuries of musical experience between their ranks took the name Buena Vista Social Club (after the since demolished self-named Havana club, for which double-bassist Cachao dedicated a danzón) and recorded a self-titled album showcasing their talents and styles in Havana’s EGREM Studio, where conditions and equipment were largely unaltered from their heyday a half-century back. Populating Buena Vista Social Club are such numbers as the wistful “Dos gardenias”, the dual fiery jams of “El cuarto de Tula” and “Candela,” the Compay Segundo/Omara Portuondo duet “Veinte Años,” Cachao’s danzón, and of course the opening track in Segundo’s ever-popular late career hit “Chan Chan” with Ferrer on vocals. On release, the album proves a massive hit, winning a Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album and rocketing its featured retirees into global popularity far beyond what they achieved in their heyday, prompting further sessions with the Buena Vista members in other configurations and as solo artists, as well as opportunities to play United States venues for the first time in many of their lives.

The closing track is also really good.

Ah, but while all this is well and good for musical history, we ARE here to discuss the National FILM Registry, aren’t we? Buena Vista Social Club the album hasn’t even made the Recording Registry yet! Well, if you must know how this links back to the movies, Ry Cooder has a long-standing working relationship with German director/documentarian Wim Wenders, dating back to when Cooder wrote and recorded the slide-guitar heavy soundtrack for Paris, Texas in 1984. While collaborating with Wenders on his 1997 film The End of Violence following the Buena Vista sessions but prior to the album’s release, Cooder simply could not stop talking about his experiences in Cuba, how Havana was such a wonderful place to live and work, how he met all these talented people and heard such beautiful sounds from their collaboration — to the point of frustrating Wenders, who just wanted Cooder to focus on his work. After a time, Wenders caved to curiosity, asked for one of Cooder’s rough master tapes, and determined upon listening: this is worth documentation. So, at production’s close, Wenders, Cooder, and a filmcrew packed their bags for Havana once again, armed with fairly cheap digital video recorders rather than traditional film equipment for convenience’s sake, to unobtrusively record in the studio and on the streets alike, as well as avoid the issues which typically plague normal film stock in remote tropical environments. While down there, they recorded González’s studio sessions for his debut solo album Introducing Ruben González, alongside ample interviews with the band members and footage of their daily lives. Follow it up with recordings of their performances in Amsterdam and at Carnage Hall in NYC, sprinkle in on-the-street footage of daily Cuban life and interviews with the musicians, and you’ve got one Buena Vista Social Club ready for viewing!

(And trust me, these five paragraphs are the heavily simplified version. If you want a properly detailed idea of the background here, I’d recommend looking into PBS’ dedicated website for the group, album, and film, or else the extras included in Criterion’s streaming version of the movie. They both give you a deeper dive into the topic than I could without making this piece more history than review.)

It is worth discussing the effect of those cheap digital cameras on the film’s appearance, first and foremost. Much as the new technology made Buena Vista possible without an infinite number of headaches, they also mean the movie has a rough look about its edges, particularly during any outdoor exploration or interview. Fine detail was not these devices’ strong suit, and the presence of bright lights or heavy shadows practically destroys their capacity to capture the scene with full fidelity. Moreover, footage of the Amsterdam concept came back so poor, Wenders and his team opted to desaturate all related passages, leaving the image near black-and-white with only faint red tones intact. While these issues mean the picture won’t win much praise for raw visual beauty against its contemporaries, they are fitting for the subject matter and how Wenders explores it. Introductory segments usually take the form of the camera wandering through an abandoned location in an industrial park or warehouse before catching sight of the musician at play and circling round to capture them in full, a technique aided by the crunchier visuals’ impression of genuinely stumbling upon a forgotten great practicing their craft in isolation. Scenes set outside the studio and away from the artists, when Wenders and crew simply wander the streets of Havana capturing life and work and play there (reputedly because they were kicked out of the studio for distracting the band with their presence) gain that necessary dimension of authenticity for looking more like high-quality home movies than traditional documentary.

I call it necessary to achieve this quality because Buena Vista strives to emphasize the locally-grown nature of its musicians. For all the above-outlined political and cultural forces which stunted and shortened careers and legacies, the musicians playing for the Social Club express little bitterness about the hand they’ve been dealt, nor does the film linger long on the history which shortchanged their moment in the spotlight. Rather, the structure takes a linking approach, mixing on-location wanderings or performances from each artist with footage from the Amsterdam concert and interviews about how they came to choose their instrument, or the talents they knew back in their youth, or how they’ve lived their lives in recent years. Framing and camera movements often repeat across a cut to link the man passionately strumming away at his tres in America to the relaxed retiree strumming for his own pleasure in the park to the respected elder eagerly relating vital information about who he learnt from half-a-century back. Rubén González’s segment in particular makes clear the importance of placing these players in the community which raised them, transforming his empty dance hall into a vibrant child’s gymnastics practice through his remembrances and piano work. Their stories, their songs, and our glimpses into their daily lives all place heavy emphasis on how nobody here would be anything if not for those who came before and those present now who supported and molded them alike, so it is necessary to get right there in the Cuban element in a way higher-fidelity video might not manage. There’s being there in the sense of feeling you could step through the crisp screen and be transported bodily, and there’s being there in the sense of viewing the place through a lens of “someone was really here with tangible equipment and captured it through imperfect means,” the sense of the average person who touched the ground and breathed the air and now brings it back to you, the same sense motivating the songs off the album.

We find more benefit to the digitally crusted visuals in looking at extracts from the Amsterdam concert in close-up. One can feel frustration with Wenders’ decision to structure the movie around a cycling artist-by-artist framework, giving only brief glimpses at Mirabal’s trumpet solo or Ochoa’s lead vocals for a minute’s stretch before we’re back in Havana listening to another story. If one comes into Buena Vista thinking it primarily about the music in the mode of something like The Last Waltz’s entire song presentations, one will come away largely disappointed. Consider, though, the effect of Wenders’ desaturation to save his footage’s preventability: in these strange tones where even mild shadows render everything beneath their touch pure grayscale while a fully-lit face is only subtly flushed in fine reds, the concert footage begins to look like some lost performance from a forgotten never-was. Rather than the participants transported to the world stage in their old age, the concert can seem a glimpse into a past triumph, the instruments and vocals powerful as they ever were because we’ve flung ourselves forty, fifty years into the past, to witness it through cracked sepia tone tinted with the raw passion on display. When we cut from Compay Segundo discussing his past to Compay Segundo onstage, we go not forward in time to his performance at eighty-nine, but back to his prime, the future made past in a demonstration on how time hasn’t dented his (or anyone’s) prowess in the slightest. In this way, the desaturation (and by extension the slightly shaky early digital results elsewhere) create this effect of the modern slamming into some long-hidden secret art, and reveling in the capture of the refined old through the not-ready-for-prime-time new by way of embracing the jank as its own kind of revealing truth.

My two favorite parts of the documentary certainly benefit from the technical limitations imposed on Wenders and company. The one extended look into the Amsterdam concert, during the “El cuarto de Tula” number, provides a great many memorable moments all on its own. Pio Leyva’s minimalist dance moves that’d leave David Byrne quaking in his boots, the non-verbal interplay between de Marcos González and Ochoa as they loop their way through the chorus, Leyva’s injections as they approach the climax, Torres taking his laúd behind his back for a flashy solo, all fantastic. It’s also when the benefits of desaturation reach their peak, transforming perception of these old guys who need help pulling off their on-stage stunts and have to treat every movement with reservation into the wild-hearted, fun-loving professionals bursting with talent by stripping away the modern and replacing it with warmly-toned echoes of yesteryear. They ARE still what they are, obviously, but everything they were in their youth and still were during recording comes bursting to the surface. The same token applies to the street level views of their visit to NYC before the Carnage Hall performance, which enhances the sense of the movie as personally-recorded home video. Scenes of Leyva and Mirabel discussing American pop culture bighead sculptures in a shop window or González and Ochoa trying to see the Statue of Liberty from atop a skyscraper viewing platform come to us with the same visual style as the camera’s wanderings down a Havana street as Portuondo sings to amuse herself and greet her neighbors, collapsing all distance between the two locations. Though the film is tight-lipped about the politics which led to this situation on the surface, the commonality of presentation from one city to the other makes evident the arbitrary nature of any divide between them — styles and specifics change, and it’s magical for these men who’ve never been to wander a new set of streets, but the two share a spirit as all cities must, and are unified before the somewhat crummy digital eye.

With all this notated, I should also note Wenders’ presentation isn’t all rooted in compressing time and distance to find the common spirit between the old man before us and the young man we know he once was. The talent and vitality of the Buena Vista Social Club’s members is constantly at the forefront too, the joy and wisdom of age as necessary to our understanding and appreciation as transfiguring the frame’s content to see with more than eyes. You can see it in the final Carnage Hall performance, which closes the film and comes to us in full color; still on creaky digital, yet decidedly modern as Ibrahim Ferrer belts out “Candela” with as much fervor as you please to raucous applause. And then we come to the finale, a reprise on “Chan Chan” with its chorus about traveling and verses telling a simple, humorous country scene about a boy and a girl, set to common scenes in Havana for the final stretch. While I know I make a massive deal out of combining simple musical performance with common images every single time, I do not think one achieves the age and happiness seen in the Social Club’s members by losing one’s ability to find the exceptional in the ordinary. These were musical giants who stood tall as they were only in the final years of their long, long lives, and I’m inclined to wax poetic and say they went so long and shone so bright when they finally got their dues because of the very thing Wenders captured in his documentary. They drew their music from what they had, they appreciated their home and their people with all their hearts, they kept a burning spirit and passion for experimentation alive as their performing days faded and retirement took over their lives, they felt an eagerness to share and pass on what they knew when they found ready ears, and they were open to finding the exceptional and life-changing in something completely ordinary even when they had very little life left.

The Buena Vista Social Club’s eldest members would largely pass within a decade of the project’s organization — Puntillita in 2000, González and Segundo in 2003, Ferrer in 2005, Leyva in 2006. Its younger and surviving elder members alike continue to tour and record in their own time, keeping the spirit of mid-twentieth-century Cuban musical traditions alive well into the twenty-first. And we the world over are privileged enough to live in a time when a multimedia project captured the beauty of their work from multiple angles, across the albums’ direct representation of their music, the media coverage’s deep dives into their history, and the movie’s glimpse at how something lost and creaky can still sing and play with power beyond words well into its twilight. A few years later, and we’d likely never know these faces and voices and stories at all, not even as footnotes in the history book. Sometimes the Registry brings us to the fragile parts of the word, where one need only raise a camera of any quality at the right time to capture something rare and special, and make it available for appreciation and celebration to all. Raise a thanks to those who made this possible, and do yourself a favor by taking some time to explore their songs.

Dos gardenias para ti
Con ellas quiero decir
Te quiero, te adoro, mi vida.
Ponles toda tu atención
Porque son tu corazón y el mío.

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I’ll be first to admit my focal choice here comes across a little weird and maybe doesn’t do the project justice, but I also know I tend to be overly harsh on myself, so what’d y’all think? Any thoughts to add about the history, the musicians, the album, the movie, the overall Buena Vista Social Club collective I may have neglected? Post comments below, and keep your eyes open for next week’s picture. When we reconvene, we’ll be looking at the 2020 class’ nod toward American experimental film, specifically the work of Robert Beaver, and more specifically the work he produced from 1993–2001 in the wake of his filmmaking partner and lover, the Greek director Gregory J. Markopoulos. The stonecutter’s ruminations in the prismatic mode of The Ground are not available anywhere I can rightly recommend in pubic, but I’ve plans for access and donation all the same, so I’ll see you then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

I write on the National Film Registry.