Wim Wenders's "Buena Vista Social Club" is a glowing-embers documentary: When it's over, your heart and soul will be warmed from intimate musical contact with its subjects, a half-dozen largely forgotten masters of Cuban son, a traditional acoustic Afro-Cuban music that dates back to prerevolutionary Cuba of the '30s and '40s. It's an irrepressibly romantic, sweetly sentimental style that had been largely abandoned even in its homeland, and its rediscovery, renewal and recent introduction to international audiences is clearly a minor miracle.
In 1996, guitarist-musicologist Ry Cooder went to Cuba to record a joint project between Cuban and West African musicians. When visa problems scuttled that venture at the last minute, Cooder sought out some of the son musicians whose recordings he'd heard on a Cuban visit 20 years earlier, not knowing if any of them were still alive, much less playing.
Cooder's inquiries turned up a number of veterans, some of whom hadn't performed in decades. Cooder brought them together in a Havana studio to record two albums--"The Afro Cuban All Stars" and "Buena Vista Social Club." The latter became an international sensation, selling more than a million copies, winning numerous prizes and turning the musicians--whose average age is around 70--into major concert draws in Europe.
One of those enthralled by the album was Wenders, who first worked with Cooder on the soundtrack to 1984's "Paris, Texas" and later offered his services documenting the son revival. Wenders shot concerts in Amsterdam and New York (the Social Club's final performance in July 1998), and spent three weeks in Cuba during the recording of a solo album (just released) by vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, the "Nat King Cole of Cuba."
Ferrer, whose delicate, expressive voice and emotional quietude are astounding, is one of the film's most charming characters. That's particularly evident on "Dos Gardenias," an elegant duet between the 70-year-old Ferrer and 69-year-old diva Omara Portuondo, herself considered the "Edith Piaf of Cuba." As they trade unhurried verses and intertwine harmonies in a recording studio, Portuondo is overwhelmed by the song's melancholy and begins to cry. Ferrer gently wipes away her tears without missing a beat.
Later, when Portuondo strolls through her old neighborhood--like much of Havana, it's decaying but brimming with humanity--she begins to sing an unaccompanied bolero, soon joined by a local woman who walks along beside her, improvising a street duet.
Two other compelling characters dominate the film. One is 92-year-old guitarist and singer Compay Segundo, who began his career in the '20s and shows no sign of slowing down, much less behaving like a senior. At one point, he recommends a favorite hangover cure to curious fans and seems thoroughly disinclined to abandon either the smoking of cigars--Segundo proudly remembers first lighting up at age 5!--or flirting. "As long as blood runs in my body, I am going to love women," he says with a smile.
The other is pianist Ruben Gonzalez, a mere 80, and a man of quiet grace and immense dignity. There's a sequence where he's seen playing alone in what was clearly once an elegant hotel ballroom. Soon, however, Gonzalez is surrounded by young dancers and gymnasts who pose and prance with joyous physicality as his fingers spryly sketch "Begin the Beguine."
While Wenders and Cooder let the musicians briefly explain their roots and experiences, they're clearly less interested in history than in musical illumination. For the most part, they let the music stand on its own in several settings--the Amsterdam and New York concerts, the Havana recording studio, several informal settings. The result is joyous, sensual, subtly etched, utterly intoxicating music, from the elegant opening number, "Chan Chan," to the mournful finale, "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas." Highlights include the piled-on choruses of the fiery "Candela" and the proud "Cienfuegos," in which the ensemble beamingly sings in unison, "Today I feel so proud to sing to you about my land!"
Fame and acclaim apparently had to wait until these particular musicians were in the twilight of their careers. Like vintage wine and instruments, they seem to have improved with age. Little wonder that back home in Cuba, they're known as "los Super-Abuelos"--the Super Granddads!
Toward the end of the film, some of the band members find themselves in New York for the Carnegie Hall concert and they slowly wander downtown streets like innocents abroad, clearly enthralled by the bustle, the color, the teeming vitality, even the schlocky celebrity statues lining the windows of tourist shops.
"This is very lovely," one says. Another adds: "I'm under the spell of this."
Anyone watching "Buena Vista Social Club" will have the same experience.
Buena Vista Social Club (101 minutes, in English and Spanish with subtitles at the Cineplex Odeon Janus 3) is rated G.
CAPTION: Pianist Ruben Gonzalez, 80, is featured in Wim Wenders's "Buena Vista."