The Making of the Film

It may come have come as a surprise to some that acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, The End of Violence, Paris, Texas, etc.) was behind the camera for this documentary. But one look at the stylistic touches -- elegiac and arcing pans, vibrant color contrasted with sepia tones, street scenes that are neither scripted nor completely "spontaneous" in the real cinema sense -- clues you in to a master at work.

The Seed is Sown

Ry Cooder's and Wim Wenders' professional relationship and friendship dates back to their collaboration on Paris, Texas (1984), which Cooder scored with his trademark edgy-blues slide guitar and sprinklings of Tex-Mex. Cooder also scored The End of Violence, work which he did in Los Angeles just after finishing up the original Buena Vista Social Club sessions in Havana. Wenders has said that he noted a "glassy" look in Cooder's eyes whenever he spoke of the Cuban project, which Cooder constantly did during the scoring sessions for the new Wenders' film. Cooder gave Wenders a cassette dub of a rough mix of Buena Vista, and soon both were glassy-eyed with visions of the Island. Wenders asked Cooder to let him know when he would return to Cuba, envisioning a documentary that would capture the story behind the music as much as the performance of the music itself. The opportunity arose in 1998, during the recording sessions for Ibrahim Ferrer's debut album.

On the Island

Wenders arrived in Havana armed with only a couple of small digital cameras, a digital Betacam, and a Steadicam (with which much of the material was ultimately shot by director of photography Jörg Widmer). His guiding dictum was: "Try to do justice to these amazing people and let the music speak for itself." It was Wenders first visit to the island. He arrived with a basic concept for shooting, but a much more organic style developed as he went along; each day he discovered new locations and tableaux.

An interesting thing happened as hours and hours of tape piled up: Wenders felt that his subjects were coming across less as documentary interview subjects than fictional" characters-distinct personalities verging on the mythical, or archetypal, through the meticulous re-telling of their stories. Musicians, unlike most actors, ironically, relish and are quite good at spinning tales -- and men in their seventies and eighties have plenty of tales to spin. Perhaps the essential element here is that these musicians shared a direct lineage to the classic era of Cuban popular music -- they had played with, and were in and of themselves, the legends of the golden era.

All Wenders had to do was let the tape roll to capture something "larger than life." Not everything ran smoothly. Things never do on a shoot, and shooting in Cuba took its particular toll. Even basics like electricity -- and feeding the crew three square meals -- became adventures. Then there was the fact that the film crew was shooting an actual recording session-not a mock session as is usually the case in MTV-style documentaries. At one point, Cooder, who had his hands full with production duties for Ferrer's album, asked Wenders to leave the studio for a while. It seems that the actors -- the musicians, that is -- were always keenly aware of the camera's presence. Not that they were hamming it up, but their energy was always slightly distracted by the film crew. But being "booted out" of the studio to let the musicians focus on the music had its benefits, certain street scenes for the film being concocted during those "off" hours.

The fact that Cooder was producing an album during the shoot in Havana also had an impact on the ultimate direction of the film. Cooder was unavailable to Wenders much of the time, pushing Wenders ever deeper into the musician's corner. While Cooder is also a character in the film, his presence there, as in the music itself, is modest.

The Concerts

Wenders left the island with some 50 hours of footage. The crew set up again in Amsterdam, shooting rehearsals and what at that time seemed likely to be the only live performance ever of the Buena Vista Social Club as a "band."

But then there was the possibility of a performance at Carnegie Hall-a venue that, of course, the Cubans longed to play. It was touch and go, but finally the gig was set. By that time, Wenders knew that he had enough material for his film, but decided on shooting the band's "final" performance at Carnegie Hall because of its symbolic function of closing the story's narrative circle.

Pushing for one last shoot at Carnegie Hall also delivered a priceless moment for the film. At the conclusion of the fiery rendition of "Candela," we get a close-up of Ibrahim Ferrer, his face practically filling the screen, at once beaming and somehow bittersweet. The look sums up the vast legacy of Ferrer's life and career and, by extension, that of all those involved in the Buena Vista story.

A New Way of Filmmaking

The fact that Buena Vista was shot entirely on DV equipment and then transferred to film makes it part of a pioneering generation of projects in the digital age. "The fact is that the film just wouldn't have gotten made any other way," says film editor Brian Johnson. The mobility and affordability that digital equipment provides were crucial to the project. Important also was the low-key, un-intrusive quality of equipment sometimes small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, which can place subjects at ease, in contrast to the amount, and size, of equipment that can accompany traditional film or video shoots.

Parts of some of the more memorable sequences in Havana were shot on mini-DV, including the main sit-down interview with Compay Segundo at his niece's house, one of the first location shoots. The reason for this was simple: the digi-Betacam that was used for most of the principal shooting had not arrived yet and Segundo was scheduled to leave the island for a performance tour.

On Ry and Joaquim Cooder's motorcycle ride through the streets of Old Havana, the shots of Ry from Joaquim's point-of-view were  actually taken by Joaquim himself. Wenders merely gave the younger Cooder his palm-sized mini-DV camera. Editor Brian Johnson estimates that roughly one-fifth of the entire film was shot "informally" on mini-DV by Wim Wenders and his wife, Donata. Another key visual element in the film is the nearly black-and-white imagery of the Amsterdam concert. In technical language, the digital footage was "desaturated," meaning most of the color was bled out, leaving just enough to create a tone somewhere between sepia and black-and-white. It is a subtle, eerie effect: at first glance, the image appears black and white, but then suddenly you catch a glimpse of a red stage light in the background -- not fully red, but tinted enough to realize there is color there after all.

Not that the shoot was planned this way. All that happened in the editing room. Wenders was unhappy with the colors of the Amsterdam footage the combination of the stage, lighting and wardrobe just didn't add up, unlike the elegant tones at Carnegie Hall. Ultimately, the decision to desaturate was a visual coup, giving the film a third visual "feel" that fit perfectly in between the effusive topicality of Havana and the classy look of Carnegie Hall.

In the end, Buena Vista is not just an extended music video, and not simply a documentary, either. The interweaving of visual formats, songs, stories and, most of all, indelible characters, brings us to that much closer to the subject at hand. For 101 minutes, we truly commune with the Island and its people, with its history, with its future.

The Film | The Music | The Musicians | The Gallery | The Scene
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Site Credits
Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch Records.
Film Images appear courtesy of Road Movies.