Buena Vista Social Club’s Music Speaks for Itself in Wenders Documentary

Wim Wenders’s 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club stands apart from other concert films such as Dont Look Back, Bittersweet Motel, Gimme Shelter, and Rattle and Hum. While for the most part audiences know of Bob Dylan, Phish, The Rolling Stones, and U2, respectively, most of them do not know of the ensemble gathered to perform as Buena Vista Social Club. Liner notes of the self-titled 1997 album offer few details about the artists. This lack of information became part of Wenders’s motivation for the film, but more importantly, he says, “I went to Havana because I wanted to let these musicians speak for themselves, since this music speaks for itself so powerfully” (Falcon 10). Wenders creates intimate portraits of them through the story of their lives and through their music, which reveals, as New York critic Peter Rainer describes it, how “their sounds are inextricable from the anecdotage of their lives” (53). Wenders paints these portraits through his interview style, specifically in camera and soundtrack, both of which work to showcase the music as much as the artist.

Wenders sets up a loose structure for the interviews in Buena Vista Social Club. In general each sequence features one performer talking about his or her life, playing or singing in a candid moment, and then performing with the ensemble at an Amsterdam concert. The camera during the more intimate moments seems to float around its subject, hovering in the general physical space at a medium or three-quarters shot distance without confronting the musician in a tight close-up. During the concert scenes, however, the camera tightens up both in focus and in movement, becoming more abrupt in its panning and closer in its shots, with more medium and close-up ones. A dual-layer soundtrack bridges the transitions between the personal scenes and the performances. During the candid segments, the soundtrack splits into two separate, but simultaneous, sets of audio: a speaking voice and the music, while the sound in the concert scenes – the music – is the lone audio stream.

To help create an intimate feel to this film, Wenders employed Sony DigiBetaCams and Digital Handycams. The cameras were “friendly to the process of discovery,” according to Wenders, because they were “almost invisible” (Falcon 25). Their flexibility and portability facilitate a variety of moving shots during the candid moments. In the interview with Eliades Ochoa Bustamente, the camera opens the sequence framing the back of a train car, and the camera operator walks to the left until Ochoa, sitting and playing guitar, appears, though in a long shot. The camera maneuvers behind him, circles around him, and finally pauses before him; despite all this movement, Ochoa never once looks at the camera.

Since the deteriorating rail yard offers little to see, the camera’s meandering helps focus our attention not only on Ochoa, but also on the soundtrack. Wenders takes greater advantage of the soundtrack than he does the images; he forces it into double duty during the candid moments. Each interview consists of two tracks playing simultaneously: a narration and the music. The narration, spoken by the performer in the image, provides autobiographical information related to the role of music in his or her life. Ochoa’s narrated segment begins with his comment, “Music is so beautiful,” as he details how he came to play the guitar at a young age. At the same time, his guitar playing and singing in the scene appear on the soundtrack.

The camera and the soundtrack work together to anticipate a cut to concert footage. Ochoa discusses playing for money in the red light district, and as the camera zooms in for a close-up, the quality of the sound of his guitar playing changes for just three notes. The image still is in synch with the sound for those three notes, but the sound becomes hollower, farther away. At the end of those three notes, the image cuts to the concert; the voiceover narration ends and the music takes over. A similar bridge occurs when the sequence returns to the candid shots. During the performance the frame puts Ochoa in close-ups while he sings and medium shots while he plays the guitar; other medium shots of ensemble members are intercut with shots of him. The camera then moves in for a close-up and the concert sound fades out; Ochoa sings two words alone before cutting back to the rail yard, where he continues the chorus and strumming the guitar.

The cooperation between camera and soundtrack to cue a shift in venue changes slightly during the interview with Rubén González y Fontanills. The sequence begins with a shot looking up a wide, elegant, three-flight staircase with Greek-type columns. In a meandering movement similar to Ochoa’s sequence, the camera operator walks up these stairs into a bright, open room with rows of these columns on the left and the right, windows on all sides, and colored, padded mats on the floor. Turning gently around the camera frames the back of a piano and as it moves closer reveals González at the keys. The camera circles behind the piano and a column to frame González from above. This entire shot lasts one minute and 45 seconds, and again, the shot helps focus attention on the music and the musician, even though the scenery offers more to see than the rail yard.

The scene then cuts to González sitting on a bench in a park for his interview, which features the music-narrative duality in the soundtrack, though this time González speaks on camera while the piano plays in the background. He details how he began playing when his family brought home a John Stowers piano, and he describes how he began taking lessons at age seven. As he talks close-ups of his hands reveal how fidgety he is; they never remain still in their constant gesturing and wringing. These close-ups serve as a transition between the interview and the concert footage as the restless energy of his hands suddenly gain a directed purpose: a single, accented note on the piano. Unlike Ochoa’s sequence, González’s sequence features no obvious musical bridge such as lyrics; instead, that note serves as an aural transition to the concert as well. Just as the scene begins with an emphasis on González’s hands it ends the same way, with a 25-second take in a close-up of them. A fade-out returns the sequence to the piano and narrative soundtrack with cuts between the dancers in the studio and González in the park.

The camera-soundtrack link in the interview with Orlando “Cachaíto” López heralds back to Ochoa’s sequence. The camera begins in another spacious and beautiful building, this one filled with stained glass. On a door the Spanish word “entrada” (enter or entrance) is etched, and the camera operator goes through the door and in a long shot reveals López playing his bass. The long shot also shows the room with the stained glass panels in red, green, yellow, and blue; sunlight streams through them. He plays for more than a minute before he begins his narration with, “I’d like to tell you a bit about how I began working in music.” The bass volume lowers as he describes how he comes from a long line of bassists, even though at first he “was a little afraid of the bass.”

The camera wanders around López as he plays, and he then explains how he and González work well together. At this point the camera pans down to his right hand plucking the strings, and the film cuts to his concert solo performance. The shots during the concert switch between three-quarters shots (to incorporate both Lopez and his bass) and close-ups of his hands plucking the strings. As he finishes his solo and receives a round of applause, the camera cuts to a long shot of the entire ensemble and then cuts to another performer, not back to López.

This linkage of performance and personal history through camera and sound creates a powerful and engaging portrait of each musician, but Wenders modifies the pattern and uses it for a shot with Joachim Cooder, producer Ry’s son and a percussionist with the Buena Vista Social Club. Just barely in his twenties, he is by far the youngest member and the only other American outside his father. The interview with the younger Cooder shows him walking along a wall of colored doors in red, green, blue, and yellow. Wire and boards cover the holes where windows once were. Cooder looks at the doors as he walks past them, climbs a small flight of stairs, and then leans on a rail on the landing above. The camera follows along with the walk but remains at the bottom of the stairs after Cooder climbs them.

Joachim Cooder’s sequence differs from those of the musicians in two ways, One, no cuts to him performing occur, and two, no music accompanies his narration on the soundtrack. Some music from a studio session lingers before he starts talking and some more music enters the soundtrack as he walks up the stairs, but he never performs during this segment, just walks. Instead, he narrates about how wonderful the experience of working with this group: “There’s no kind of learning like the kind of learning you get from the guys here. It’s so subtle and quiet and so powerful at the same time.”

Hearing his narration sounds odd in comparison with the other segments. The dual soundtrack links the music with the speaker and the speaker’s history, not to mention, in conjunction with the camera, links personal moments with public performances. In that sense, the narrator speaking on the soundtrack without the image matching serves a logical purpose. With the single track, however, that sense gets lost. Watching the eleven musician interviews that appear before this one conveys the importance, meaning, and history of this music well enough in themselves and thus makes this extra commentary superfluous. Tacked on near the end of the film, this scene serves no purpose in letting “these musicians speak for themselves” (Wenders, qtd. in Falcon 25). Instead, it adds the dissonance of an American voice where none is needed.

Faced with introducing relatively unknown musicians and their passion for music to the world, Wenders accomplishes his task quite well through his interview style with its camera techniques and innovative soundtrack. The film celebrates a culture, history, and music long ago forgotten by much of the Western world. It gives a voice to these musicians, but it does so by silencing the serious sociopolitical questions that arise from the Communist issue. Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government and implemented his own regime in 1959, drawing a proverbial iron curtain around the island country. The film features a panoply of images of a run-down Havana, including the rough-paved streets, the dilapidated buildings, the inoperable streetlights, and the 1950s cars – all shown without comment. Like any art, music is a product of the culture that produces it as much as a product of the artist who creates it, and forty years of a non-capitalist government (or oppression, as many capitalists label it) and United States sanctions against the country certainly impact these musicians’ lives. By tacitly ignoring these sociopolitical questions, Wenders reaffirms the power of the regime that long ago silenced these musicians and their music.

Works Cited

  • Buena Vista Social Club. Buena Vista Social Club. Perf. Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Compay Segundo, Orlando López, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Ry Cooder, and Joachim Cooder. CD. Nonesuch/World Circuit, 1997.
  • Buena Vista Social Club. Dir. Wim Wenders. Perf. Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Compay Segundo, Orlando López, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Ry Cooder, and Joachim Cooder. DVD. Artisan Home Entertainment, 1999.
  • Falcon, Richard. “The Heavens over Havana.” Sight and Sound 9.10 (1999): 24-26.
  • Rainer, Peter. “Bay of Gigs.” New York 14 June 1999: 53-54

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