With Cuba still very much on our minds--and, less happily, in our bellies!--Ellie and I rented Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club and watched it the other night. We had seen the film many years before, of course, at the height of its popularity here in the US, and had been delighted by it then. This time around, in addition to the sheer delight of the music and the players, it brought back vivid and colorful memories of Havana--a city that has changed little since the movie was made in 1999.
I can't write with any intelligence about the music. I have a notoriously tin ear, and my body moves with an Englishman's sense of rhythm. Enough to say that its eccentric sensuality charms, along with the earthy, seductive voices of the singers; and the complexity of its rhythms engages even this non-musical mind. The sounds are compelling; they command the attention of a mind that is otherwise usually prone to wander when asked to listen to music.
That said, the movie is a rich experience for me because it addresses a theme that is close to my heart: the persistence of the creative spirit even through the challenges of aging and neglect. We get to know the members of the Buena Vista Social Club through a series of meandering interviews, interwoven with sequences or rehearsal and performance. From the first, we know of their triumphant return--first in Amsterdam and finally, climactically, in Carnegie Hall. But several of these grizzled, life-worn performers had abandoned their instruments years before, discouraged by the lack of interest in their art. We watch their joy as they rediscover their chops, and their wonder at the ecstatic reception their music receives, even outside of Cuba. They share with us the music in their bones, in their souls, and we emerge the richer for having known them.
But it's more than a personal triumph. These musicians, these artists stand in for many thousands of others, creative, often superbly talented souls, who somehow never quite make it to the forefront of acclaim; or having reached it, by some chance, soon fade from public awareness into the oblivion from which they suddenly emerged, shooting starts in the cultural universe. I love those stories of older artists, long neglected, suddenly "rediscovered" and recognized for the value of their work--even though it happens, sometimes, long after their death. It takes, as in this movie, a Ry Cooder, a man willing to listen with a fresh ear, with respect for age and experience, without prejudice or commitment to a cultural mainstream. Key to the success of the Buena Vista Social Club, this seemingly both passionate and compassionate musician acts as the magnet who brings these diverse talents together.
Beyond these pleasures, there are the streets of Havana, brightly colored, their decaying grandeur teeming with humanity. The shabby clothes of the children, the crumbling balconies, the great hulks of ancient American cars, the dark doorways where groups gather to converse in the shade--all these brought back memories from the recent past, reminding us of the extraordinary spirit of a place that has been, like those artists, neglected by the world for too many years; and whose creative energy survives, despite the neglect, and continues to prosper in its own unique way. I like to image that it will not be too many years before its magic is rediscovered and brought to the wide attention it deserves.