Movie theater owner Bob Laemmle recalls chatting with a friend recently about the upcoming film inspired by the album "Buena Vista Social Club." Hopefully the "D-word"--documentary--wouldn't scare people away, Laemmle told the friend while waiting in line for a latte in Santa Monica.
Suddenly a young woman interrupted the conversation: "Excuse me, did I hear you talking about the Buena Vista Social Club? I love them!"
Then the man behind her said, "Did I hear you say there is a movie about them? I can't wait!" Pretty soon the entire coffee shop crowd was talking animatedly about the film's release.
Perhaps, reflected Laemmle, he was underestimating the Social Club's appeal. "This is more than a documentary," he said. "The CD has achieved so much popularity. This title has the kind of recognition that usually comes with something like a Hollywood film."
Two years after the startlingly successful album featuring a cadre of Cuban musicians playing traditional sones and boleros sold more than 1 million units worldwide and won a Grammy, the documentary will premiere Friday in Los Angeles. A new recording by one of the Social Club's lead singers, Ibrahim Ferrer, is set for release this month as well.
Artisan Entertainment, the film's distributor, plans to open "Buena Vista" in New York, L.A. and Miami initially, and then move it into a 25-city wider release--an unusually ambitious strategy for a music documentary, according to company president Amir Malin.
The movie was produced by guitarist Ry Cooder, the inveterate explorer who has been a one-man world music resource. He first traveled to Havana in 1996 to record an album with musicians from Cuba and Mali, a project that was scuttled by visa problems for the African musicians. Cooder then turned his attention to the old-timers who dominated the scene when the Buena Vista was a members-only social club in the East Havana hills. Directed by German-born filmmaker Wim Wenders, "Buena Vista" takes a look at each of the band members--nearly all of whom had been forgotten musicians on their native island.
Filmed in three weeks last year, the movie is a love letter to Cuba and to the musicians--whose average age is 70--none of whom ever imagined that they would find international fame in the twilight of their years.
Portrayed in the movie is 92-year-old composer and singer Compay Segundo, who exhibits a teenager's zest for life; 71-year-old singer Ferrer, who was down on his luck until he was literally plucked off the street by other members of the band; 80-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who hadn't played much for years because his piano had been damaged in a storm; stand-up bass player and the band's backbone Orlando Lopez Vergara, otherwise known as "Cachaito," nephew of famed bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez; the only woman in the group, singer Omara Portuondo; tres player and singer Eliades Ochoa, who has also released a new album; and the others in the band who form the Buena Vista Social Club.
The documentary is filled with beautiful images of the people and landscape of Cuba. Wenders does not ignore the economic hardship apparent everywhere--even the well-known Karl Marx Theater in Havana is missing an "r" on its marquee.
But Wenders also films the historic beauty of Havana, a city that once served as one of Spain's most important ports. Though its buildings are crumbling, their majesty endures.
"Havana is very imposing," said Wenders, 53, whose fascination with cities has been evident in several of his films, including "Wings of Desire," set in Berlin, and "Lisbon Story." "It's so incredibly colorful. All the faded colors are so strong in that light. To the movie camera something as sad as that destruction is attractive. But it is very sad to see Havana crumbling."
Wenders' observant eye captured cameos of Cuban life, such as an old woman smoking an enormous cigar as she sweeps her porch. He also allowed himself freedom to tape nearly everything he saw, accumulating more than 80 hours of material, which he edited down to about an hour and a half. He very consciously avoided making any political message.
"I tried to see it in the same way as the music--the music is so beautiful that the best way to show it is to step away and not make a comment about it but just let it be," he said. "I felt that about the city itself. Politics is so obvious--nothing in Havana is that obvious."
Chronicling the musicians' stories and their music was a near miracle, considering so many of the Cuban greats have already died, Cooder said.
"It's like going prospecting down there," Cooder, 52, said last week as he talked with Wenders in the director's Los Angeles home. "When enough people like that die they take their knowledge with them. You need to hear the masters do it. The music is a kind of story. It's music that is coming from within."
Wenders, who has known Cooder for 20 years, became interested in the story after hearing the "Buena Vista Social Club" album. Cooder's enthusiasm for the music and the musicians was so passionate that Wenders offered to fly to Havana and film their stories.
"We were working on the 'End of Violence' soundtrack," said Wenders, referring to his 1997 movie. "It was hard for me to get [Cooder] to pay attention to my movie because he kept talking about Havana and the incredible stories about these men. So I said, 'OK, next time you go I'll go with you.' "
Soon Wenders was on a plane to Havana, where he found his more regimented, Germanic style didn't harmonize with the Cubans' languid sense of time.
"As soon as we got there we realized we had to go with the flow," he said. "We had to work as the Cubans do--not come in as the Germans."
Wenders filmed the musicians in the studio as they recorded Ferrer's album. During their days off, Wenders filmed each of them narrating their own stories with Havana as their backdrop.
The movie's accidental star is Ferrer, a man who had stopped singing amid disillusionment and hard times. Cooder met Ferrer in 1996 when they recorded the album.
"After three days [of recording], I said, 'We have a big problem here--nobody is singing,' " Cooder recalled. " 'Where is the beautiful bolero voice? That high, ethereal kind of spacious voice?' "
He was told there was only one guy in Havana who could do it, but it would take some digging to find him--if he was still alive. Cooder's musician friends walked around the old Havana neighborhoods, asking for Ferrer. Eventually, he was found. Ferrer's initial reaction was one of confusion and disbelief, Cooder said.
"What do you want?" Cooder said, imitating Ferrer. "Who wants me? What is this all about?"
Another hero in the film is the 92-year-old Segundo, who is still smoking cigars, flirting with women and touring all over Europe. As one of the elder statesmen of Cuban music, Segundo was like a walking encyclopedia for Cooder to consult.
"Compay would say, 'That song is no good, it's boring and I don't like the writer--we had an argument in 1935,' " Cooder laughingly recalled. "He's had some years. He would tell me [that] he's been through two world wars, three revolutions and four dictators. I could ask him anything."
Then there is Ruben Gonzalez, who played piano with legendary Cuban bandleader and composer Arsenio Rodriguez more than 50 years ago. Cooder knew he wanted Gonzalez on board, but nobody knew where he was.
"First they said he was dead," Cooder said. "Then they said he wasn't dead but that he was arthritic and couldn't play. All this was because no one had seen him or heard from him, and in a town as small as Havana you would think somebody would know something."
Finally, they found him.
"He just didn't have a piano, that's all," Cooder said. "Now he has a little piano."
Wenders catches a hilarious moment when Segundo asks directions for the old Social Club in the Buena Vista neighborhood. Soon, a crowd swells around him, arguing about where the old locale once stood, but also engaging in random conversation. Soon enough, Segundo is discussing the best way to nurse a hangover.
"As soon as he realized that he wouldn't be able to find it, he relaxed and started to talk," Wenders said.
The film's images of Cuba are interspersed with footage from the group's concert in Amsterdam and its historic performance at Carnegie Hall in 1998. Some of the film's most emotional scenes come when the musicians visit New York. For them, it was like landing in paradise.
Wenders captures the tenderness of Ferrer crying at the end of the concert, and Gonzalez reminiscing about his first trip to New York in 1930. Or band members Manuel Licea and Pio Leyva walking down an avenue, looking at souvenir statues of celebrities in a shop window. Though they easily recognize Laurel and Hardy, Babe Ruth and Louis Armstrong, they are stumped when looking at John F. Kennedy. "I can't remember [his name] but he's one of the great leaders," one of the two said.
In the end, it all seems somewhat surreal. Or as Ferrer himself said in his album dedication: "For the first time, I have realized a lifelong dream that I never thought possible."