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A Little Bit of Heaven

Joy isn't a word that often comes to mind when thinking about the films of director Wim Wenders. But infectious, intoxicating joy is the emotion conveyed by every frame of this ravishing, exuberant documentary. Buena Vista Social Club is not only the German filmmaker's most engaging, soulful film since Wings of Desire (1987), it is also the most satisfying movie about music since Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme's 1984 concert movie featuring the Talking Heads.

The project came about as a result of the American musician Ry Cooder's lifelong passion for Cuban music, which in 1996 bore fruit as an extraordinary worldwide hit recording that rescued the members of this exclusive "club" -- many of whom were in their seventies, eighties, and nineties -- from total obscurity. Cooder has been an advisor on film projects with Wenders for more than 20 years, on such films as Paris, Texas (1984). But nothing in their previous collaborations could have prepared us for this.

During their work together on Wenders' most recent film, The End of Violence, Wenders spent countless hours listening to the stories Cooder told him about these extraordinary musicians and to the ecstatic music Cooder had recorded, and Wenders begged his friend to let him return to Cuba with him on his next trip.

The first opportunity came two years later in 1998, when Cooder returned to Havana to record a solo album with the great singer Ibrahim Ferrer. At the time Ferrer -- whom Cooder describes as a natural singer on the order of Nat King Cole -- was a street singer who made his living primarily by shining shoes. The music featured here is folk music in the truest sense in that it emerges directly from the lives of the people who perform it. The songs speak with awe-inspiring simplicity and honesty of hearts that blossom with love and the sorrow of love gone wrong.

These are songs, too, that are deepened by the lines in the singers' faces, which Wenders' camera captures with remarkable sensitivity. To tell the full story of this music, Wenders and his crew not only watch as these masters lay down the tracks during their recording sessions and as they perform together on stage before their transfixed fans, they also follow the musicians -- most notably Omara Portuondo, who is known as the Edith Piaf of Cuba -- back to the neighborhoods where they grew up, back to the street corners and crowded apartments where they first learned the music as children at their fathers' knees.

Nothing in Wenders' earlier movies -- however accomplished they may be -- equals the emotional richness on display here. There are musical epiphanies in abundance; too many to enumerate. The depth of feeling -- for example, the moment at the end of the duet between Ferrer and Portuondo in "Dos Gardenias," when the 70-year-old Ferrer wipes a tear from the eyes of Portuondo -- is profound. During one scene, Ferrer proudly takes us on a tour of his modest apartment, pausing to give special attention to the Madonna he maintains in a shrine on a shelf in a corner of his sitting room. As part of the offering, he leaves a small glass of rum, which he knows she must appreciate because he knows how much he likes it.

Many of the musicians are unsurpassed in their field, nearly to the point of being living legends. Compay Segundo, for example, grew up in Santiago, and by the 1920s, he was accomplished both on the traditional guitar and the Cuban variation, the tres; he worked in tobacco fields and as a barber to sustain himself. By the age of 20, Compay Segundo had joined the Municipal Band of Santiago as a clarinetist. And if that wasn't enough, he invented a seven-string instrument, the "armonico," which combined the characteristics of the guitar and the tres.

Nearly every musician has a story of this sort to tell. Many have been forced to abandon their professional careers. Ruben Gonzalez is considered a legendary figure at the piano -- a true innovator whom Cooder has called "the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard in my life." However, for nearly a decade prior to making Buena Vista Social Club, Gonzalez did not even have a piano. And if the personal stories and the music weren't enough to carry the film, the skill with which Wenders and his cinematographers convey the richness and vibrancy of Cuban street life almost causes us to forget that we're watching a documentary.

Just to see these musicians take the stage at Carnegie Hall is a sublime moment. Both personally and professionally, it represents a natural culmination, even a sort of vindication, for every member of the group. On an entirely different level, though, the shots of the musicians wandering the streets of Manhattan, window-shopping and looking out over the city from the top of the Empire State Building, is just as powerful. Wenders has already made two films about angels, and at times Buena Vista Social Club almost qualifies as a third.

Or perhaps that's just another way of saying that it's heavenly.

Buena Vista Social Club.
Directed by Wim Wenders. Featuring Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, Pio Leyva, Manuel "Puntillita" Licca, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Ry Cooder, and Joachim Cooder.

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Hal Hinson

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