In 1997, retired Cuban musicians in their seventies and eighties released the album Buena Vista Social Club, which was an instant smash. The Cuban jazz music and incredibly magnetic performers were captured by German director’s Wim Wenders’s 1999 documentary about the production of the album. The film followed legendary guitarist and producer Ry Cooder’s attempt to collaborate with musicians for the album.
Nearly two decades later, Lucy Walker, a two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, revisits the musicians from the original film as they embark on a farewell tour. During the shooting of the original film, which concluded with performances in Amsterdam and the United States of America, there was a fraught relationship between Cuba and the US. In the years since, these relations have thawed, and Walker’s documentary, called Buena Vista Social Club: Adios, features a performance by the band at the White House for former US President Barack Obama.
A recurring theme in the original film was the relatively advanced age of the performers. Most of them had already retired before they found global fame after the album’s release. In one of the memorable exchanges in Wenders’s documentary, Cooder asks after hearing a song he likes, “Who wrote it? Is he or she still alive?”
Walker’s documentary aims to capture the sense of loss. Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez and Orlando López have died. The surviving members, including Omara Portuondo, Manuel Mirabal and Barbarito Torres, are into their nineties.
Buena Vista Social Club: Adios opened to lacklustre reviews on May 26 in the US. While Wenders’s film, focussed on the interplay between the musicians and the ecstasy of their performances, Walker expands on their backstories and attempts to analyse the milieu in which the music is created and performed. Perhaps by explaining how the music came to be, the mystery and the magic of the original was lost in the process.