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Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

May 26, 2017
Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

Back in 1996, guitarist Ry Cooder went to Cuba and recorded a week of sessions with local musicians. They turned up some of the original son players, the same ones whose bands in the ’40s and ’50s worked in the hotels and casinos and kicked off the Latin dance boom in America. These very same musicians were still around, playing and singing in Cuba, unheard of outside the island. Together, they captured some of the old songs in an album perfectly targeted at the rising self-consciously globalist strain of American consumerism.

Two years later, in the wake of the album’s critical and popular acclaim — including two Grammy awards — Cooder assembled the musicians for two performances in Amsterdam and one at Carnegie Hall. Wim Wenders made a documentary at the time, which itself was nominated for an Academy Award and won a number of others around the world. But it focused more on the album and the live performances, and less on the history behind the music itself.

Sixteen years after that, as the Obama administration finally began to work towards normalizing relations between America and Cuba, the five musicians who remained held one last tour. Documentarian Lucy Walker spends some time with them, and digs deeper into the history and culture behind the music itself in Buena Vista Social Club: Adios.

The first hour of the film covers the history lesson that Wenders’ documentary didn’t. The roots of son cubano in the eastern highlands around Santiago de Cuba rhyme strongly with those of blues and jazz in the American south, but with a distinctly Hispanic accent. Bantu-derived rhythm and percussion combined with Spanish canción and guitar variants that settled most commonly on the tres.

Through the early 20th century, Cuban bandleaders like Arsenio Rodríguez and Beny Moré developed the son, merging in and spinning out most of what America now thinks of as Latin dance. Rumba, mambo, cha-cha-chá, and salsa all have their roots in these Afro-Cuban dancehalls. And before the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the late ’50s, it was the hottest sound across the United States.

But the focus is always drawn back to the core group that ended up involved in the ’96 album and ’98 tour. They have some interesting stories to tell, but it can sometimes feel like their presence is due as much to being in the right place at the right time as to any sort of inherent importance to the son. Some of them, like Compay Segundo, really do occupy a central role, and were famous back before the revolution; most seem to have been hard-working and talented, but little-known before Ry Cooder needed to assemble a band. Compounding this, many of the ’96 lineup aren’t around anymore, so their stories are told through a combination of archival footage — often from Wenders’ documentary — and testimonials from the others who have survived.

By the second half of the film, the focus is entirely on the album, the tour, and what has happened to the musicians since then. If you’re a huge fan of the original tour, it may well be fascinating, but it can feel like the sort of thing you’d find in the supplemental material of an anniversary re-issue of the Buena Vista Social Club DVD.

Notably missing from the film is a serious look at how recent political developments have interacted with the son. The historical section at least glossed over the revolution and the segregated social clubs of the ’50s, but what effect is the relaxation of tensions between the United States and Cuba having?

For that matter, what about the commercialism of the American and European bourgeoisie, and how they turned the original Buena Vista Social Club into a phenomenon in the first place? There’s a fascinating tension between recognition and exploitation, and a more daring documentary would pluck that string. But of course Buena Vista Social Club: Adios only exists because of that well-off Anglo audience, and it knows better than to ask them to examine their own complicity in the difficulties their beloved struggling Latinx artists have endured.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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