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Film Review: Buena Vista Social Club

The Buena Vista Social Club is an exuberant, life-affirming, beautiful breeze of a movie - a celebration of music, love and the wondrous unpredictability of life. Wim Wenders, the expressionistic auteur behind Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas has collaborated with composer and musician Ry Cooder to produce, in my opinion, the cinematic experience of the year.

It could almost be the band reformation of the century. In 1996, Cooder brought together a dozen or so of the finest Cuban jazz players to record a reunion album, The Buena Vista Social Club, named after a long-forgotten music club in Havana. The album garnered worldwide acclaim and a 1997 Grammy award. Post revolution Cuba was brought sharply back into focus. Many of the musicians had been forgotten, even in their own land.

Ibrahim Ferrer, described by Cooder as a Cuban Nat "King" Cole, was a shoe-shine merchant while Ruben Gonzalez, the band's 80 year-old pianist, hadn't played in over a decade and claimed he was crippled by arthritis. This is refuted in a lovely rehearsal scene in a vast gymnasium where his skinny, crow-like fingers weave magical spells over the keys. My favourite scene in the movie features Gonzalez standing at the front of New York's Carnegie Hall, milking the rapturous applause of the audience for all its worth. Finally, he turns and smiles at the rest of the band, returns to his piano and allows someone else to steal the limelight.

The film is structured around three musical strands - the 1998 Havana studio sessions of a solo album featuring Ibrahim Ferrer and two concerts of the full Buena Vista ensemble, one filmed in Amsterdam and the group's final performance together in New York's Carnegie Hall. Modestly directed, the music is intercut with confessional interviews shot mostly on Steadicam and footage of the natural drama of day-to-day life in Havana. Creaky 50s US cars crawl by, factory workers handroll the iconic Cuban stogie, gigantic waves crash against an unprotected pier and the peeling fa?de of old Havana is wonderfully photographed. It is the consummate tourist statement.

Each musician is introduced in turn. We meet 92 year-old Compay Segunda, who has smoked cigars for 85 years and whose romance with life remains so ardent that he speaks of fathering yet another child to add to his family of five. We see some of ensemble strolling through the crumbling streets of Havana, singing as they walk and talking to the local Havanans about times and music past. This contrasts sharply when Ferrer and Gonzalez are filmed wandering through New York City prior to the Carnegie Hall show. They pass a cardboard cut-out of John Wayne in a shop-front - "Who's that mean-lookin' guy?" asks Ferrer. Failure to recognise Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy remind us just how insulated these people were under Castro's rule.

No overtly political points are made, aside from some revolutionary graffiti and there is, surprisingly, a complete absence of regret from the musicians. Perhaps it is their lack of ego that allows these men and women to bring such gorgeous music to life. Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders should be commended for the wonderful work they have done.

To conclude the film, Cooder confides in his son, Joachim, "You're lucky if this happens once in your life," and I for one felt privileged to have been able to share it with them. Do not be surprised if you break into spontaneous and embarrassing applause. Like me….

Stephen McNulty

'The Buena Vista Social Club' opens in Dublin's IFC on Oct. 8 '99

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