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Artisan Home Entertainment presents
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

"I'll tell you, if it hadn't been for Buena Vista...all these folks were practically forgotten."
- Manuel 'El Guajiro' Mirabal Vazquez

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: June 04, 2000

Stars: Ry Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez
Other Stars: Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo
Director: Wim Wenders

Manufacturer: Crest National
MPAA Rating: G
Run Time: 01h:40m:22s
Release Date: December 14, 1999
UPC: 012236101765
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In 1996, Ry Cooder travelled to Cuba to produce the Grammy-winning record album Buena Vista Social Club, re-discovering some of the greatest Cuban popular musicians of the 1950's. In 1998, Cooder returned to Cuba, accompanied by director Wim Wenders and his crew to create this documentary film of the same name. The film also includes concert footage from the assembled group's live performances in Amsterdam and New York City.

Rarely is a serious documentary as joyous as this one. The musicians are all talented veterans (including Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa and some of their contemporaries and successors) and it's thrilling to watch them at work. There's a poignant quality to their personal stories—some had fallen on hard times before the successful Buena Vista album rekindled international interest in their talents. Most of the musicians were in their 70's or older when this film was made, with Compay Segundo an energetic 90 years of age. When these artists perform, the decades seem to vanish—their voices and "chops" are intact and vibrant, a living reminder in this youth-oriented era that life doesn't necessarily end with the onset of "old age."

Wenders (best known for fictional features like Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas) proves an able documentarian—his camera has great affection for its subjects without calling attention to itself or influencing the action too directly, and the film never seems exploitative or condescending. The principals are given time to discuss their lives and work, with shots of their private lives intercut with straightforward concert footage and images of present-day Cuba. Wenders' film is commendably apolitical—its comments on Cuban life under Castro are incidental, most evident in the film's final sequence as the musicians explore New York City.

It should be noted that this is not a "concert film" as such—it's a documentary, and while many extended concert and rehearsal scenes are included, they're mixed with interviews and observations. The music is recorded live with passable audio quality, but the film focuses on the people, not the performances. Casual viewers should also be aware that most of the film is in Spanish with subtitles, so full attention is required to get the most out of Buena Vista Social Club. Song lyrics are subtitled, though they lose a lot in the translation—the subtitles don't necessarily rhyme or fit rhythmically, and I eventually found myself ignoring the translations to better enjoy the music.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Artisan's packaging bills this DVD transfer as a "16:9 Fullscreen" image, "formatted to fit your screen."This is accurate, but a bit confusing—the film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, not the theatrical release's slightly-cropped 1.85:1 ratio, and does in fact provide a full-screen anamorphic image on a 16:9 widescreen display.

Buena Vista Social Club was shot using Sony's Digital Betacam video format; post-production editing and subtitling were done on video, after which the documentary was transferred to 35mm film for theatrical distribution. This DVD transfer appears to have been taken from the original video master, rather than a 35mm print, and has the detailed but harsh look characteristic of video. The digital transfer suffers from some artifacting around hard edges, and black levels are quite light; colors are frequently off, with sequence-to-sequence saturation variances and slight green and red tints visible in some scenes. This transfer will disappoint those who saw the film in theatres—while technically a generation closer to the original footage, it's not nearly as attractive. The supplemental Trailer (transferred from 35mm) has a much more film-like image with a softer edge, more naturalistic color, and a surprisingly "deeper" appearance; it's a shame the main attraction doesn't look nearly as good.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Buena Vista Social Club is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 with an enveloping soundtrack atypical of the documentary form. I suspect much of the surround activity was engineered in post-production, but it's still very effective, with split audience surrounds in the concert sequences and nicely directional street sounds during the documentary portions of the film. Audio quality is limited by "live" recording, and a few of the concert mixes emphasize the music at the expense of the vocals. LFE bass is musically solid, and while the audio doesn't achieve the quality of a controlled studio recording or a carefully miked live concert, speech and music are always clear and audible. By concert film standards, this soundtrack is only average, but by documentary standards it's excellent, and the digital transfer is faithful to the source.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
4 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Wim Wenders
Packaging: Alpha
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:14m:35s

Extra Extras:
  1. About The Musicians
Extras Review: Buena Vista Social Club is no slouch in the extras department, though I wish the songs were indexed. The disc features creatively designed and animated menus with sound, and special features include:

About The Musicians:

Photos and one or more text screens about each of 15 musicians, often with more detailed biographical information than can easily be pieced together from the film.

About The Filmmakers:

Nicely written text screen profiles and filmographies for director Wim Wenders, producer/co-creator Ry Cooder, and producers Ulrich Felsberg and Deepak Nayar.


The original theatrical trailer, very nicely transferred from 35mm film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with anamorphic video and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio.

Wim Wenders Commentary:

An alternate audio track featuring Wim Wenders discussing the making of the film. His English is quite good and his commentary is generous and wide-ranging, covering everything from the editing of the film to its philosophy and spirit.

Production Notes:

Several brief text screens discussing the making of the film—not as informative as Wenders' commentary, but not "fluff" either.

Additional Scenes:

This section features extended versions of 4 scenes included in the released film, transferred from video in anamorphic 1.78:1. Two are complete concert renditions of songs excerpted in the film, and two are longer versions of interviews trimmed for pacing. These scenes aren't "additional" material in the strongest sense of the word, but these longer versions are worthwhile as supplements.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Buena Vista Social Club is a satisfying documentary on many levels. Artisan's DVD transfer isn't as solid as it might have been, but the movie overcomes all technical obstacles with sheer joy and sincerity. This documentary preserves an important piece of Cuba's cultural heritage, and there's a deep sense of "irrevocable loss averted" in this life-affirming film. Highly recommended.


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