'Buena Vista Social Club: Adios': Film Review

Lucy Walker - Buena Vista Social Club Documentary - still-1 -H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance
Doesn't offer enough new delights to justify a return.

Two decades after its unlikely revival, Lucy Walker's doc bids goodbye to the Cuban all-star group.

Produced during the shocking success of 1997's Buena Vista Social Club album — the phenomenally popular collection of newly recorded Cuban roots music — Wim Wenders' documentary of the same name offered both fans and newcomers the joy of seeing brilliant elderly musicians rescued from obscurity. For most Americans, the record/film was both an introduction to a genre they hardly knew and a direct encounter with its progenitors — like discovering rockabilly just in time to see Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis give their last great concerts.

Two decades later, Lucy Walker's Buena Vista Social Club: Adios offers a very different kind of experience: "a fond farewell," supporters would say, "milking the last penny out of the brand," cynics would snort. The truth is somewhere in the middle for this muddled outing. Though it offers new biographical tidbits about its charismatic stars, they are too few to justify returning to the well, with years of copycat docs — digging up everyone from Pakistani classical musicians to retired Motown session men for one last big concert — making this format much less of a sure thing than it once was. Familiarity will ensure some attention in limited theatrical bookings, but in the video marketplace, it shouldn't compete much with the first film.

Walker joins recently shot interviews of the few core BVSC members who survive with copious footage shot during the first project, adding concert material and vintage clips as needed. She does tease out some enjoyable character-revealing stuff. During prep for the group's first big concert — in 1998, when their megastardom wasn't yet established — we catch a too-proud Compay Segundo arguing that no machine is going to tell him his guitar's not in tune. (It isn't.) In the present day, singer Omara Portuondo gets a stretch to talk about her long friendship with Ibrahim Ferrer, who was stuck singing backup for others while she made the leap to a solo career in the '60s. We get to hear Barbarito Torres, "the Jimi Hendrix of laúd," recall the 1996 recording sessions, when producer Ry Cooder gave him a cassette of an old song he loved and asked him to copy the solo on it; after listening, Torres explained that he didn't have to copy it. The recording was of him.

Toward the end, though, the doc takes on a maudlin air. It shows us Segundo's funeral, watches a very ill Ruben Gonzalez as he hobbles across a stage to receive some award, et cetera.

It may be true, as we're told, that Ferrer insisted on singing what turned out to be his last show, despite suggestions that he cancel due to poor health. (He wound up needing to use an oxygen tank after every second song.) And those who saw that show may have felt an intimate connection with the faded star. But it's a disservice to the memory of this graceful, seductive performer to offer footage of that sad concert here. After Adios, many longtime fans will want to chase the taste away with a stiff shot of the old stuff.

Production companies: Broad Green Pictures, Blink TV, Convergent Media
Distributor: Broad Green Pictures
Director: Lucy Walker
Producers: Julian Cautherley, Christine Cowin, Asher Goldstein, Zak Kilberg, Victor Moyers
Executive producers: Andrew Baker, Daniel Hammond, Gabriel Hammond, Bill Lord, Jason Lust, Russell Smith, Lucy Walker, Wim Wenders
Directors of photography: Enrique Chediak, Lucas Gath
Editors: Pablo Proenza, Tyler Temple Higgins

In Spanish and English

Rated PG, 110 minutes