Along with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? bluegrass bonanza, the biggest jackpot hit of the 1990s when it came to marketing musical authenticity to the masses was Buena Vista Social Club.
On a 1997 album and, two years later, a movie of the same name directed by Wim Wenders, Buena Vista Social Club introduced to the world a still-vital generation of Cuban musicians whose beginning dated back to the prerevolution 1950s.
With Fidel Castro in power and a U.S. cultural embargo still in place, Buena Vista producers Ry Cooder and Juan de Marcos Gonzalez pulled back the curtain on a host of wondrous players and personalities, including singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, laúd player Barbarito Torres, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, and guitarists Eliades Ochoa and Compay Segundo, among others. The movie chronicled their concerts in London, New York, and Amsterdam, turning them into international stars. The album sold 12 million copies.
Buena Vista Social Club: Adios checks back in nearly two decades later, digging deeper into the musicians’ back stories and recounting the origins of the 1990s Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, which was named not for an existing band, but for a Havana performance space popular among black Cubanos in the 1940s and 1950s on an island with a racial-segregation history of its own.
The new movie — helmed by British director Lucy Walker, who has the 2002 Amish-teens-gone-wild documentary Devil’s Playground on her resume — focuses on the 2015 goodbye tour.
That joyous jaunt brought the surviving Buena Vista Social Club members — who have also toured extensively in other outfits such as the Afro-Cuban All-Stars — to such illustrious venues as Longwood Gardens in Chester County; a petting zoo in Perth, Australia; and the White House in Washington. When they performed for President Barack Obama and the excitable Vice President Joe Biden, the now-86-year-old Portuondo, whose white mother was disowned by her parents for marrying her black father, feels empathy with Obama, whom she calls “very thoughtful, very calm. He’s mixed like I am. A mix of black and white.”
Adios is at its best when excavating the past. Many of the original movie’s stars have died, including Segundo, Gonzalez, and Ferrer. The singer Ferrer, who died in 2005, has an especially winning presence in the update, in interviews of recent vintage and in unearthed black-and-white footage as a tuxedoed crooner on Cuban TV. Also priceless are clips of Portuondo and her sister Haydee singing for Winston cigarettes in a pre-Castro era with capitalism running amok.
De Marcos Gonzalez serves as an excellent younger-generation tour guide, situating the syncopated music in a racial and political framework. “When we’ve had really bad times,” he says, “we have created new forms of music that have helped us survive.”
Adios commits the all-too-common music-documentary sin of not showing performances from start to finish. And despite it’s bidding-adieu title, little time is spent on the 2015 goodbye tour.
The details of how Buena Vista Social Club came together in the 1990s remains fascinating. The late Ferrer charms when recalling how he had retired, “disappointed with music,” then jumped back in upon hearing the good news: “They’re paying?”
But as you watch much of Adios, it’s hard not to wonder: Didn’t they cover this in the first movie?
Buena Vista Social Club: Adios
Documentary directed by Lucy Walker. Distributed by Broad Green Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parent's guide: PG
Playing at: Ritz East.