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Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo Let the music take you away
... to Cuba, on the beautiful melodies of ...
"Buena Vista Social Club"

Reviewed by John Orr

(Click on the images to see larger version and credits.)

One of my favorite moments in "Buena Vista Social Club" happens when we see a famous Cuban singer walking along a seedy street in Havana.

"Mi nombre es Omara Portuondo," she begins, in Spanish, as we see the subtitles say "My name is Omara Portuondo. I was born here in a section of Havana in the neighborhood called Bone Key."

Joachim and Ry CooderAs she walks along she smiles with the people in the street, and we see them and we see the walls, which are sometimes raw, sometimes partially covered with peeling paint, sometimes with graffiti. Some of the doors are chipped and marred and some are pocked with what look like bullet holes.

She tells us about her childhood, when her father, a famous baseball player in Cuba, and mother use to sing duets after lunch. "That's when I began to love our Cuban music," the subtitles translate for us.

On the street, she begins to sing a Cuban song, "Veinte Años," which she had recorded a couple of years before for the audio album "Buena Vista Social Club." It is a song she has known since she was a child.

She is dressed prettily in a colorful long dress with a bright yellow long scarf tied loosely in front. She sings as she walks, and waves to her fans, who seem shocked and happy to see her in the neighborhood:

"It doesn't matter if I love you, if you no longer love me. A love which is in the past should no longer be remembered."

She notices a chubby young woman who is following along to one side, wearing a bright pink cotton dress and carrying a handbag under her arm. She is singing, too, so they continue as a duet:

"I was your life's desire, once so long ago. But now I'm part of the past, and I can't agree with that. If all the things we wanted were within our grasp ..."

Compay Segundo, Omara PortuondoAnd then the scene shifts to a concert stage, where Omara Portuondo is singing the same song, this time in a duet with another great singer famous in Cuba, Compay Segundo.

"Then you'd love me just the same, as 20 years ago. And with so much sadness, we watch love fade away, a part of our souls so heartlessly torn away."

And the song is beautiful, much more so than it seems in these mere letters on the screen, when sung with the lovely melody line, either in a Havana street in need of maintenance or on a stage.

But, on the stage are some of Cuba's greatest musicians, gathered for recordings and concerts by Ry Cooder, one of America's greatest musicians, who is also on the stage, playing guitar.

The music, with amazing blends of melody, rhythm and percussion, soars with grace and beauty, carrying the words like birds lifted in the air.

"The Buena Vista Social Club" began as a Ry Cooder project to record some of the the great old Cuban songs, using Cuban musicians, himself on guitars, and his son Joachim Cooder, a percussionist. It became a great album in 1997, won a well deserved Grammy and sold a lot of copies. It's lush, beautiful, romantic.

The Cuban tunes are so rich in so many ways -- multiple guitarists picking different melody lines that weave together like beautiful aural tapestries, while a piano or trumpet might take a bit of fill for a splash of color, and all the while a deep bass is keeping our hearts on time and the crowd of percussionists are throwing in sparks of gold. It is wonderful music.

Ibrahim Ferrer, othersA couple of years after making the album, Cooder went back, to make a solo record with one of the musicians from the original album, Ibrahim Ferrer.

He took along filmmaker Wim Wenders -- to Cuba, and to concert halls in Amsterdam and New York, and this film is the result.

"I've been making records for about 35 years," says Cooder in voiceover, "and I can tell you you never know what the public's going to go for. This turned out to be the one they like the best. I like it the best."

The film gives us a chance both to appreciate these wonderful musicians, some of whom are in the 90s -- they were stars in Cuba before Castro, before World War II even.

And it is a stunning if subtle, thought-inducing look at that island nation.

Wenders and Cooder get the musicians to talk about their lives, and film them in the streets. It is very telling -- the peeling paint, the Cubanos working on the American cars from the early '50s. People talking about the old days, when there were clubs that attracted wealthy Americans, when trade was allowed.

But, always it comes back to the music, and the music is beautiful. And the stories of the old musicians are fascinating.

More lyrics, although you must see the film and hear the lovely melodies and instruments. This is from Ibrahim Ferrer in the recording studio, with Omara Portuondo singing harmony:

DVD notes

The DVD includes commentary from Wenders, some extra concert footage not in the edited film, production notes, trailers and a few other features. The sound and image, of course, are great.

Ferrer: Asleep in my garden, the gladiolas and the roses, white lillies, and my soul, so very sad and heavy. From the flowers, I wish to hide the bitter pain.

Portuondo: I wouldn't want the flowers to know about the torments that life gives me, for if they should know what I am suffering so, for my sorrows, they would cry as well.

Duet: Silencio, for they are sleeping. the gladiolas and the lillies. I wouldn't want them to know my sorrows. because if they see me crying, they would die.

And ... from another great tune, that gets the whole movie moving:

When Juanita and Chan Chan sifted sand together on the beach, how her bottom shook, how Chan Chan was aroused.

Really. Rent it, buy it, see it for yourselves.

The musicians: Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ry Cooder, Joachim Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Rubén González, Orlando "Cachaíto" López, Amadito Valdéz, Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, Barbarito Torres, Pío Leyva, Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, Juan de marcos González.

Theater or Video?
If you get the chance to see it in a revival house, by all means, do so. In the meantime, the DVD and the VHS tape are both great for home viewing.
DVD at Amazon.com
VHS at Amazon.com

The 1997 audio CD "Buena Vista Social Club" audio CD at Amazon.com
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer audio CD at Amazon.com
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo audio CD at Amazon.com

See cast, credit and other details about "Buena Vista Social Club" at Internet Movie Data Base.