A listless sequel that frustrates
WASHINGTON: In the year or so after its release, the 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club became a worldwide recording phenomenon.
In 1996, American guitarist Ry Cooder had assembled Cuba’s most talented musicians – many of them well into their 70s – and invited them play standards in the traditional “Son Cubano” style. A few years later, there was an accompanying Oscar-nominated film by German filmmaker Wim Wenders.
Buena Vista Social Club: Adios is a sequel to that 1999 film, with English filmmaker Lucy Walker replacing Wenders, who has stepped into the role of executive producer. Aimless and frustrating, Adios is a follow-up that constantly attempts to reassert its relevance.
Since the release of the original film, Cuba has changed significantly. Opening with news footage about Fidel Castro’s death, Walker signals that there has been a sea of change in the Caribbean country, before plunging us into scenes of modern-day Havana. The first half of the film reintroduces many of the major musicians from the first film.
Among the more striking of these characters are Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, the heartbreaking singers who helped the first film find its soulful centre.
Although the original Buena Vista Social Club ended with a Carnegie Hall performance in 1998, Adios continues well into the 21st century, including a historic 2015 performance at the White House for President Barack Obama.
Adios could have been an affecting reunion, as well as a refresher course on a musical genre that has not gotten much attention since the earlier film faded from people’s memories. The trouble is that Walker tells her story with an inattentive, meandering style, showing us lots of archival footage that jumps all around the 20th century, with little effort to put these fragments in context.
Her cameras circle around individual musicians, without ever showing us how the performers coalesce into a singular musical force. The effect is like listening to a conversation with someone overeager to introduce a favourite new band: all breathless free- association, with no patient explanation. Our confusion leads to disinterest.
Another disappointing aspect of Adios is the music.
As in the original documentary, Walker’s film doesn’t allow us to linger over an entire song, delivering mere snippets instead that convey only the idea of a tune and not its full emotional weight. The haunting ballad Chan Chan, for example, comes without the vaguely sinister instrumental that opens it, rendering the song about as powerful as background music in a restaurant.
At another point, someone mentions Ferrer’s gift for vocal improvisation, yet the clip that Walker chooses to illustrate this talent is so bizarre that it’s difficult to comprehend what makes his performance so special.
Adios exists primarily to secure the legacy of the musicians from the first film, many of whom have passed away in the two decades since the original documentary came out, and who, the film suggests, have now attained the status of folk heroes. Some of these musicians lived into their 90s, so, while their deaths are not a tragedy, Walker hints that the Son Cubano style may expire with them.
As an elegy, Buena Vista Social Club: Adios is an imperfect one, in no small part because it glosses over the history of the country in which it’s set. It feels like a wasted opportunity not to ask the film’s subjects to reflect on a country that has seen so much change and rejuvenation.
If only Adios had the patience to sit back and listen to a song for more than a few bars, it might have inspired a new set of fans.
Walker leaves us with a fractured portrait, not only of these musicians, but of what they mean for their countrymen. – Washington Post
Omara Portuondo and Gilberto ‘Papi’ Oviedo in