WHAT IS IT about a collection of rickety, crooning, bongo-tapping Cuban old-timers that makes "Buena Vista Social Club" such a delicate triumph?
Why is it that, 101 minutes after knowing nothing about these singers, guitarists, percussionists, divas and pianists, you feel as if you've just parted with family? Why are their final concerts in Amsterdam and New York's Carnegie Hall last year so touching?
If you can get into the disgraceful Janus theater, the only place Cineplex Odeon has booked this great movie, maybe you can find out. On the immediate level, it's about the music. A subtly etched, rhythmic style known as son, it's sensational. German film director Wim Wenders chronicles his friend Ry Cooder's musical pilgrimage to Cuba, where the eclectic American guitarist went in search of a lost generation of legendary musicians to make a comeback album.
Some had passed on, but many were very much alive. Cooder -- long aware of the Cuban musical tradition -- rounded them up, ushered them into recording studios, cut an album called "Buena Vista Social Club" and dispatched them on the aforementioned world tour. The album sold more than a million copies worldwide.
We meet the musicians, who, like fine wines, have aged beautifully.
There's 90-year-old Compay Segundo, a guitar player and clarinetist who grew up in the mountains of Cuba. He worked the tobacco fields or cut hair by day, then played music in the local bars by night. One of the last of his generation, he has become the grandfather of the son music that infuses the movie.
There's also Ibrahim Ferrer, a k a "The Nat King Cole of Cuba," whose soft, 70-year-old voice will slay anyone with an appreciation of fine music.
He does a duet with 60-something diva Omara Portuondo (herself known as the Edith Piaf of Cuba) that will bring thumps to your chest. Sexiness and musical harmony never enjoyed vintage like this.
The musicians are too numerous to list here. But they include 80-year-old Ruben Gonzalez, an outstanding pianist with a silky touch who abandoned medical studies in the 1940s to become a full-time musician in Havana, and 66-year-old trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabel Vazquez, who has played with the greats since the 1950s.
All have stories to tell; all live profoundly inside their music. And anecdote by anecdote, vicarious encounter by encounter, you can feel the pulsations beating in old chests.
Director Wenders, who also made "Paris, Texas," "Wings of Desire" and "Until the End of the World," has a unique ability to tap the unfathomable, to get at the things that lie just beyond our grasp and articulate them.
One of the most touching movies I've seen is the 1985 "Tokyo-Ga," in which Wenders makes a filmic pilgrimage to Japan to pay tribute to the director Yasujiro Ozu, who died in 1963. The emotional peak of the movie occurs when Ozu's faithful, stoic cinematographer, who spent years following the master's instructions, suddenly breaks down in tears over his memories of working for Ozu. In this obscure corner of the world, Wenders suddenly opens a door for all of us.
In "Buena Vista" he does it again. The film, essentially a videography, which was shot on Sony DigiBeta and SteadiCam, belongs as much to Wenders as Cooder. The symbiosis between them -- one seeking the heart of the music, the other getting to the heart of the heart of music -- is stunning.
They provide only the vision, of course. The real players are on-screen. You can read tremendous personal history in the fleshy parchment of their faces. You can hear the wit and irony in their accounts of the heady, musical days before Fidel Castro put freedom under lock and key. Between the beats of son, you can feel the vibration, spirit, or whatever you want to call it, undulating under the surface. And when the band makes its final appearance on the Carnegie stage, to the sweetly mournful strains of "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," you realize you're hooked to these Cuban crooners for life.
BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (G, 101 minutes) -- In Spanish and English with subtitles. At the Cineplex Odeon Janus.
CAPTION: Nobody does it better than Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, singing a duet in "Buena Vista Social Club."