Buena Vista Social Club Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
“Ah, the Buena Vista Social Club!”
It’s a moment of recognition and admiration on the part of the cigar-chomping man. The man, a musician named Compay Segundo, suggests asking locals about it. Some note that it is long gone. Others remember the exact building number and the kind of street it was on. Some danced there. There is recollection in all of their eyes and they speak of it as if the Buena Vista Social Club was simultaneously their first home and an ancient landmark.
It is Havana in 1998, which doesn’t look all that different than Havana of the 1960s. The mission of filmmaker Wim Wenders and guitar legend Ry Cooder is to join together some of the key figures who performed at the club and have them record an album and perform a set of concerts, two in Amsterdam and one at Carnegie Hall. It, based on footage early in the documentary, is a successful mission. Because of this, viewers are treated (and likely exposed) to a style of music that likely never hit their ears before. (The album, simply titled Buena Vista Social Club, went Platinum and ranks on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest ever.)
The music is impressive and it’s a real charm to see how these people, removed from what might be considered their prime, playing it. And when they talk about the power music holds in their lives, it’s like we’re being let in on little personal secrets. But there is so much missing in the whole. How is one of these songs constructed? How have the music and the dynamic evolved in the five decades since the club’s closing? What clear effect did political turmoil play in the closing and resurrection? The film could benefit more from such insights. Instead, Wenders would rather watch a man strum the guitar on train tracks.
Wenders (whose previous docs include 1989’s NOTEBOOKS ON CITIES AND CLOTHES and 1985’s TOKYO-GA) often includes moments in BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB that feel perhaps too cinematic. Consider many of the moments inside of the studio, in which the camera moves in and around the musicians as they record. This seems meant to create intimacy, but it is also distracting and showy, and we spend less time appreciating the music than we do get disoriented. At some points, the camera shoves directly into the faces of Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo as they duet; how can they perform with such intrusions?
BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB is a tribute, and it’s clear that Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder care deeply about the music and the people. But it’s too rare that they truly dig. The film is enjoyable and often a pure delight, but it’s also thin and devoid of complexity. The subjects easily illustrate the passion, but Wenders could have done more to lay forth a statement.
BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, but lost to Kevin McDonald’s ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER.
Video: 1.78:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB was filmed using Digital Betacam (three-chip) and MiniDV (one-chip) camcorders, which at the time offered flexibility, mobility, and the least intrusiveness possible. The image was recorded in the 625 widescreen PAL format, which scans slightly more horizontal lines than NTSC and whose frame rate is close to the cinematic standard. Nonlinear editing and conforming were also done in PAL, while color grading and mastering were carried out in NTSC. The original D2 NTSC master tape, which was used to produce a 35 mm negative at the time of the film’s theatrical release, was the source for the high-definition remastering presented in this Blu-ray and DVD release.”
To note the issues with the video quality on this transfer would be unfair, considering the technology used in the production. Expectedly, the video has problems that don’t offer the most pristine details and darker-lit scenes lean towards muddy. Where the transfer does offer some surprising pop is in the colors, especially when around Cuba.
Audio: English and Spanish 5.1 Surround. Subtitles in English. “This film features a fully digital soundtrack. The 5.1 surround audio for this release was mastered from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD.”
The audio, however, comes through without any major issues, and contributes to showing off the stellar Cuban music of the film.
Audio commentary featuring director Wim Wenders: In this 1999 track, Wenders discusses the film’s production, subjects, structure, shooting techniques and much more.
Wim Wenders (26:14): In this new interview, Wenders reflects fondly on the production and those he worked with in the late ‘90s.
Radio Interviews: Individual interviews with the following: Eliades Ochoa, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Juan De Marcos Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Barbarito Torres, Pio Leyva, Ruben Gonzalez, Manual Galban, and Alberto “Virgilio” Valdes.
Las Claves (59:50): In this 1998 interview conducted for the Spanish television program, musician Compan Segundo goes into great detail about the music he makes and loves, as well as his upbringing. Performance footage is also included.
Additional Scenes: There are four here, which can only be viewed separately. They are: “‘Candela,’ Amsterdam,” “Alberto Korda’s Photographs,” “Interview with Juan De Marcos Gonzalez” and “‘Cienfuegos Tiene Su Guaguanco,’ Egrem Studios.”
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is an essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.