Buena Vista Social Club

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

3 January

US severs diplomatic ties with Cuba, 1961

On this day in 1961, the United States formally cut diplomatic ties with Cuba. It had been building its position within the island since Cuba had gained independence from Spain and had long considered the eventual annexation of Cuba as a done deal. “The most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States,” is how Thomas Jefferson described the island which had been a part of the Spanish empire almost since the day the Americas were “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. Cuba fought two wars of independence against Spain, at which point US president William McKinley offered to buy the troublesome island off Spain for $300 million. No deal. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain renounced all claim to Cuba and American influence in the island grew. Under the Teller Amendment, the US agreed not to annex Cuba, the quid pro quo being the Cuban-American Treaty, which leased land to the US for naval bases, including the southern part of Guantanamo Bay. In spite of its “no interference” agreement, the US intervened militarily in Cuba six times between 1898 and 1922. The rise of General Batista in the 1930s (he was officially president between 1940 and 44, and again between 1952 and 59) led to close co-operation between Cuba and the USA. However, when the Cuban revolution broke out, the US crucially decided not to sell rifles to Batista, thus ensuring the success of Fidel Castro. Once in power, Castro set about reducing the influence of the USA, whose ambassador had been “the second most important man” in the country “sometimes even more important than the Cuban president,” as former ambassador Earl T Smith later told the US Senate. Castro nationalised many US-owned companies, insisted on reductions in the size of the US embassy in Havana, which he said was full of spies. The US retaliated by stopping buying Cuban sugar and refusing to export oil to the country. Quietly, President Eisenhower, who had been quick to recognise Castro, set about plotting his downfall. A trading tit for tat developed, with the US increasingly imposing sanctions and the Cubans responding by increasing trade relations with the USSR. Eventually the Cubans threw two diplomats out of the country, accusing them of arms smuggling and encouraging terrorism and sedition. The US responded by closing its embassy.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999, dir: Wim Wenders)

There are two Wim Wenders. One makes “difficult” arthouse fare – The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, Beyond the Clouds. The other is an unashamed fan who makes promo videos for artists such as U2 and Willie Nelson, directs operas, and who lionised the dancer Pina Bausch in his film Pina. One of his more successful mainstream projects was Paris, Texas, which was soaked with the music of Ry Cooder. Cooder is in evidence again in Buena Vista Social Club, a nakedly adoring documentary about the ageing Cuban singers “rediscovered” by Cooder, who produced the eponymous album which provided the background to many a dinner party in the late 1990s. This is the filmic version of the story told in a thousand newspaper features of the time – who these old guys  (and Omara Portuondo, the scarce woman) are, what they’ve been doing all the years since they found themselves “retired”, thanks to changing tastes in the domestic market and the closure of foreign markets, which, unbeknown to them, are ever hungry for new old talent. We meet Ibrahim Ferrer, a “Cuban Nat King Cole” and until recently a shoeshine boy (at 70something). We meet Compay Segundo, guitarist, nonegenarian, former cigar-roller, now a cigar-smoker, a father of six with a twinkle in his eye that suggests he’s not lying when he says he wants one more. And we meet Ruben Gonzalez, the group’s keyboard man, as elegant as a cuneiform figure. Around these three spin the other band members, none of them young, all of them energised by their rescue from obscurity, and we watch as they play the mambos, cha-chas and boleros of their youth. And remember that in Segundo at least, we have someone who was playing these songs when the styles first became popular, in the 1920s. The music is, quite simply, hypnotic, but it’s the look on the faces of these old timers, whether wandering the streets of Havana talking about the old days or gazing up in wonder at the skyscrapers of Manhattan, that makes this film a must-see. Next to that Wenders’ interspersed footage from the concerts – one in Amsterdam, the other in New York – great though it is, struggles to compete.

Why Watch?

  • The music
  • Wenders admits he was winging it. It worked
  • A powerful advertisement for the energising power of music
  • We will not see their like again

Buena Vista Social Club – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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