The very beginning and very end of Buena Vista Social Club: Adios provide contextual bookends that reinforce the finality of the film’s central saga—namely, the glorious union and astounding global success of a collective of aging Cuban musicians made suddenly famous by a 1997 album and ’99 documentary. Moments in, a radio announcement informs the island’s people that their leader of five decades, Fidel Castro, has died. Nearly two hours later, we see the American who restored relations between the long-estranged nations, President Barack Obama, meeting with Castro’s designated successor, his brother Raúl.
The injection of politics into the documentary, directed by Lucy Walker, is neither gratuitous nor underplayed. Rather, it’s crucial to the understanding of just how remarkable it was that the Buena Vista Social Club happened at all, let alone that the band captured the substantial audience it did.
Adios necessarily treads much of the same ground covered in Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club two decades earlier. The American producer and guitarist Ry Cooder, aided by World Circuit label exec Nick Gold and Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González, corrals these local musicians back into the studio and onto the stage, and for some of the players, virtuosos all, the experience of late-life fame is almost too unfathomable to process. We root them on as we watch them come together and find their groove as an ensemble, achieving new greatness and, for some, renewed purpose.
“For us Cubans, music is like our food,” says BVSC artistic director González, who, billed as Juan de Marcos, serves as the film’s narrator. “When we have had really tough times, we have created styles of music that helped our people to survive.”
A history lesson—of Cuba itself, and of son—unfolds early in the documentary. The filmmakers visit the site of the original Buena Vista Social Club venue, now a gym but until the ’40s “a place for black workers … a society for black people.” We learn the backgrounds of the musicians who came to comprise the core Buena Vista ensemble, and before we know it they’re playing Carnegie Hall. It’s the first time most of them have visited another nation.
The film has its heroes: guitarist, singer and composer Compay Segundo, already 90 when the BVSC came together; singer Ibrahim Ferrer; pianist Rubén González; guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa. It has one bona fide heroine too, Omara Portuondo, a feisty vocalist who was, in her prime, a Cuban superstar. (We witness that era via spellbinding black-and-white footage from 1952, one of many delicious antique clips.) We hear their stories—in some instances not for the first time, but in greater depth: how Ferrer grew up poor, hauled sugar and got through life despite an absentee father and the death of his mother at a young age; how Portuondo’s family was split apart by the Cuban Revolution, with one of her singing sisters escaping to Miami as Omara found fame
The first music that the old-timers made together, released in the West in 1997 under the simple title of Buena Vista Social Club, was, for many who fell in love with it, brand new. To those behind the microphones, however, it was a revival of a dormant piece of their culture, lost as the Cuban people discovered jazz and rock. “What do these people really know about Cuba, about the history of our country … about the things we’ve been through?” de Marcos asks about the Americans giving the islanders a standing ovation.
Nonetheless, the BVSC musicians were happy to be working. “This music was made with love; we were all in love with the kind of things we were doing,” de Marcos adds, a sentiment echoed by the other musicians.
Most of them are gone now. By the time Obama invited the Buena Vista Social Club to perform at the White House, and when the final aggregation wrapped it all up in 2016 in Havana, few of those who made that landmark album and provided the focus of the first doc were alive. (As of this writing, Portuondo, 86, and Ochoa, 71, are still at it, though touring separately.)
The music, of course, remains—lots of it. Most of the 20 or so core players on the original album released albums under their own names, some recorded contemporaneously with the BVSC sessions. One of the most impressive of those, Introducing … Rubén González, cut in 1996 and released the following year, was recently reissued on CD and 180-gram vinyl by World Circuit. The now-deceased artist was 77 years old at the time he made this debut as a leader, more than four decades after he’d turned pro. He suffered from arthritis and no longer owned a piano, yet, using several of the players from the Buena Vista pool, he made a recording of stunning vitality and sparkle.
Sadly, Buena Vista Social Club: Adios fared miserably at the box office upon its spring release. (It will be available on DVD beginning in mid-September.) But like its much-ballyhooed predecessor, the film is well worth seeing. The American-Cuban alliance is still in a precarious state—the Trump administration recently threatened to undo much of the diplomacy that Obama fostered—but this fine film is a vivid reminder that the country’s art, which remained a secret beyond Cuba’s shores for so long, is too important to ever be sequestered again.