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Movie Review

Cuban Serendipity

Inspired by his hit CD 'Buena Vista Social Club,' Ry Cooder makes an intoxicating documentary that celebrates the island's rejuvenating, timeless music.

June 04, 1999|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

It's the incongruity that strikes you first, the contrast between the considerable ages of the musicians in "Buena Vista Social Club," the marvelous new documentary on Cuban music produced by Ry Cooder, and the vibrant, irrepressible sounds they turn out.

But soon enough it becomes clear that it's precisely the music's rejuvenating qualities, the seductive, melodic rhythms and the simple but indelible beauty of these songs that has kept its players, now known in Cuba as "los superabuelos," the super grandfathers, as forever young as they seem to be.

Named after a long-gone nightspot in Havana where this music was nurtured, "Buena Vista" the movie is an offshoot of the hugely successful, Grammy-winning CD of Cuban music that guitarist Cooder, who has always embraced and promoted a variety of world music styles, produced in 1996.

That disc's success led to Cooder's return trip to the island in 1998 to record a solo album with 70-year-old vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, Cuba's Nat King Cole, who literally wandered in off the street to participate in the first CD. German director Wim Wenders, who initially worked with Cooder on 1984's "Paris, Texas," asked to come along, and this film is the serendipitous result.

Though Wenders' work is usually much heavier in theme and execution, these intoxicating sounds mandated a different spirit and style. "In Cuba the music flows like a river," the director reports. "I want to make a film that'll just float on this river. Not interfere with it, just drift along."

Under Wenders' direction, "Buena Vista Social Club" has a trio of focuses: the people who make the music, the city and country that nurtured them, and, most gloriously, the music itself.

In addition to Ferrer, who credits much of his success to the Santeria deity Saint Lazarus, we spend time with Cuban diva Omara Portuondo as she walks around her old neighborhood; hear 92-year-old paterfamilias Compay Segundo recall lighting cigars for his grandmother as a 5-year-old; and listen to legendary 80-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who had stopped playing for a decade, reminisce about how he began.

Besides allowing these sharply dressed, stylish veterans to tell their stories, "Buena Vista" provides a tour of beautiful but crumbling Havana, routing us along the sea-swept boulevard called the Malecon and revealing the sad states of disrepair the city's elegant buildings have fallen into. That this caliber of music comes out of these melancholy and romantic streets is no surprise at all.

Finally, of course, it is the music that is everything in this film. Evocatively photographed in rehearsals in Havana and concerts in Amsterdam and New York's Carnegie Hall by Robby Muller and Lisa Rinzler in addition to director of photography Jorg Widmer (all using a Sony DigiBeta Cam and a Handycam), "Buena Vista" creates a completely relaxed, welcoming feeling that couldn't be more inclusive.

Trading riffs and smiles, these players delight one another as well as audiences with the breathtaking casualness of their musicianship as they play songs they've known for decades. As percussionist Joaquim Cooder, who plays on the sessions along with his father, says, "It's so subtle and quiet, so powerful at the same time."

Cooder senior, who counts the CD as the biggest success of his 35-year career, says that the rediscovery and unexpected success of this vibrant musical subculture, long forgotten but alive and well, is something that "might just happen to you once in your lifetime." Being able to hear this kind of playing is a special moment in time, one we don't want to end and one that we're privileged to experience.

* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: suitable for all ages.

'Buena Vista Social Club'

A Road Movies Production in association with Kintop Pictures, ARTE and ICAIC, released by Artisan Entertainment. Director Wim Wenders. Producers Ry Cooder, Jerry Boys, Deepak Nayar. Executive producers Nick Gold, Ulrich Felsberg. Cinematographer Jorg Widmer. Editor Brian Johnson. Sound Martin Muller. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Playhouse 7 Cinemas, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; Town Center 4, 3199 Park Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.

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