"When you see them, you realize that you cannot even make any separation between their lives and music," German director Wim Wenders says of the Cuban musicians, some of whom are in their 80s or 90s, featured in his documentary "Buena Vista Social Club." "It's just all one and the same. For them it's not art, it's just their way of living."
But these musicians had not been able to practice their way of life for years. Their acoustic-based musical style, called son, predates the Cuban revolution and had been pushed aside as irrelevant by the communist state. When guitarist Ry Cooder traveled to Cuba in 1996 to record some of its traditional players, he found the glorious singer Ibrahim Ferrer shining shoes. The world-class pianist Rubén González did not own a piano and hadn't played for a dozen years. Yet the powerfully beautiful resulting CD produced by Cooder, also titled "Buena Vista Social Club," became a worldwide hit and won a Grammy in 1998. Wenders' documentary shows how these artists underwent an unexpected career revival. And how once again, they can live their art.
Wenders -- whose films include "Wings of Desire," "Until the End of the World" and "The State of Things" -- knows such passion. "Filmmaking for me also is not an art, it's my way of living, and everything I do is related to it," he explains. "For them, too, music is in their blood, and they would continue playing after each recording. There was just no stopping them. For them it's just like breathing."
Like many fans of the CD, Wenders was entranced. "From the first moment," he enthuses, "that music, I loved it. I do listen to a lot of Latin American music, especially tango, I must say. But the "Buena Vista Social Club" album is really very, very special. It is like no other Latin music I know. So if I heard it without being connected to it, I would fall in love with it just as well."
But in fact, Wenders did have a connection to these musicians, through Ry Cooder. The two have been friends for 20 years, first collaborating when Cooder composed the score for Wenders' 1984 movie "Paris, Texas." But they didn't work together again until 1997's "The End of Violence."
"Because that was such a good experience for both of us," Wenders says of their first film, "we stayed very good friends but refrained from working with each other for a while. It was such a perfect experience that one can only be afraid to ever do that again."
But their third collaboration is equally charmed, even though it was a new experience for the filmmaker. "'Buena Vista Social Club' was the first time that I was actually shooting concert footage or the recording studio," he notes. "It was a great pleasure to film music and not have the music added afterwards."
Using a very small crew (a cinematographer and sound engineer), Wenders shot on high-resolution video, which offered flexibility and spontaneity. "One of the tasks of the film," he explains, "was to have the film language try to get the flow of the music."
What also comes across is the good fortune that shone on the "Buena Vista Social Club" project from its inception. One memorable scene shows the 92-year-old singer/guitarist Compay Segundo riding in one of the immaculately preserved vintage American cars that dot the streets of Havana. He is trying to pinpoint the location of the long-defunct nightclub that gave the group its name. Once the place to see Cuba's best musicians, the Buena Vista Social Club has become only a vague memory, even to longtime residents of the neighborhood. But after some debate, an elderly woman steps forward with information. Then, remarkably, Segundo recognizes her as a former dancer at the club.
In another telling sequence, the camera glides up the magnificent staircase of a former casino and finds 80-year-old González playing an upright piano in a corner of an exquisite column-filled room. Slowly, it's revealed that this once-lavish space has been put to utilitarian use as a practice area for gymnasts.
Although politics affected these people's ability to practice their art, Wenders wanted to straightforwardly depict Cuba without discussions of politics or sanctions. "It's become sort of a forgotten place," he says, "as if it didn't exist. I hope the film will contribute a little bit to creating awareness of it again. That is one of the reasons why we really tried to refrain from making a political film as such. I thought just showing Cuba as it is was a political statement in itself."
The documentary follows Cooder and his percussionist son, Joachim, as they return to Cuba to record a solo album with Ferrer, the 72-year-old singer. Intercut with that studio footage are concert performances in Amsterdam and New York's Carnegie Hall, as well as interviews. The film is lovely, graceful and heartfelt, and Wenders captures something striking: not just Cuban ambience but a very particular glow from the fiery passion of these once-ignored musicians.
The brilliant success of the "Buena Vista Social Club" has added to the renewed interest in Cuban culture, and has made the musicians heroic figures in their own country. "They've got a nickname in Cuba now," Wenders explains. "They're called 'the supergrandfathers,' and it's a very tender name. 'Grandfather' is already a respectful name, and 'the supergrandfathers' -- they are like Superman."