Review: ‘Buena Vista Social Club: Adios’ returns Cuban musicians to spotlight

Omara Portuondo and Papi Oviedo in the documentary "Buena Vista Social Club: Adios."
(Dragan Tasic / Broad Green Pictures)

The 1997 “Buena Vista Social Club” album and Wim Wenders’ accompanying 1999 tour documentary re-introduced the world to the long-forgotten yet infectious Cuban sound of son. Lucy Walker’s follow-up, “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios,” is both prequel and sequel to Wenders’ film. This vital documentary serves as background tale and epilogue to the first film, illuminating the origins of these musicians’ lives, rooted in the history of slavery, spanning Communist revolutions and political turmoil. The warm “Adios” paints a portrait of these individuals as spirited, eternally sunny and loving, despite the many hardships of poverty and racism they faced in life.

The 1997 Grammy-winning album, spearheaded by rock guitarist Ry Cooder and producer Nick Gold, brought together the old guard of Cuban musicians for a supergroup of sorts, to showcase the legends who popularized the son cubano sound in the 1940s and ’50s. The melodic son originates from the mountains of eastern Cuba, a blend of African conga drums and European instruments, and is the basis of danceable Caribbean and Latin American music.

With the album, documentary and world tour, “Buena Vista Social Club,” so named for the Havana dance hall patronized by poor black Cubans, became a global phenomenon.

“The flowers of life come sooner or later, but pay attention because they only come once,” is a mantra of the legendary guitarist Compay Segundo,who died in 2003, and is oft repeated by various members of the group throughout “Adios.” The musicians of “Buena Vista Social Club” were in their 80s and 90s when they achieved worldwide success. Vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, a longtime backup singer, lamented that he’d finally achieved fame and fortune when his voice was shot and he could barely walk. He died the most famous and beloved singer in Cuba in 2005.


Walker’s film is a treasure trove of archival materials, seamlessly pieced together with contemporary footage of the surviving group members. Some of the most fascinating moments are behind-the-scenes glimpses from Wenders’ film, scenes that may have hit the cutting room floor originally. Walker also unearthed TV appearances from 1950s Cuban variety shows and commercials featuring the musicians, which illustrate their deep shared histories and almost century-long careers. However, the film often feels restless in its editing, and it doesn’t always pause to let scenes or information resonate.

Beautiful gems of wisdom and life lessons are contained within “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios.” The picture is an edifying celebration of this music, humanizing and contextualizing it beyond its popularity, locating its roots within a history informed by politics, colonialism, oppression, and racism. The tender lyrical sentiments and gentle rhythms become a true expression of a triumphant human spirit. Despite any shackles, social or otherwise, music will always serve as a mode of liberation, an expression of love, and “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios” passionately asserts that idea.


‘Buena Vista Social Club: Adios’


Rated: PG for historical smoking throughout, thematic elements and brief suggestive material

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: In limited release

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