Among European filmmakers of the highest order, only Federico Fellini has had an identification with travel and the road as metaphors for life remotely as strong as Wim Wenders. The road movie is, of course, more of an American trope than a genre, a modern combination of the Western genre on the one hand, and the lyrical, fleshed-out travelogues by Robert Flaherty – which prompted John Grierson to coin the term documentary when he saw the former’s Moana in 1926 – on the other (1). Unlike Fellini, however, who preferred the home comforts of his beloved Cinècitta, Wenders is a truly international filmmaker. Wenders has made films in places as varied as Portugal (Der Stand der Dinge [The State of Things], 1982), Japan (Tokyo-Ga, 1985) and Australia (Until the End of the World, 1991).
A musical documentary, Buena Vista Social Club (1999) intercuts fascinating talking-heads footage and images of the old, by now decaying lustre of Havana (so vivid that one can almost inhale the smell of head-spinning rum and rich tobacco), with wonderful concert material from European venues and Carnegie Hall to great overall effect. The film actually emerged in response to an album headlined by the forgotten, velvety Cuban crooner Ibrahim Ferrer put together by Ry Cooder in 1997, two years before the film was released. Based on that Grammy-winning album, record producer and co-writer Nicky Gold subsequently developed the idea of making a documentary about the men behind the music as well as the music itself. As such, the film is a document that largely conforms with anthropologist Jan Vansina’s conception of oral (and in this case musical) history: “The sources of oral historians are reminiscences, hearsay, or eye-witness accounts which are contemporary, that is, which occurred during the lifetime of the informants” (2).
Buena Vista Social Club, which earned Wenders a comparatively large audience and his first Academy Award nomination (he was nominated again for the similarly arts-oriented art house hit Pina  in 2012),finds the front-rank auteur and his “American friend”, the extraordinarily versatile session man and one-time Captain Beefheart collaborator turned practical musicologist, Ry Cooder, fruitfully turning their attentions to a host of outstanding Cuban musicians who played decades earlier at the long gone jumpin’ joint of the film’s title. The vivacious subject of the film is a form of Latin dance and music known as Danzòn and those who practiced it. (Danzòn was also featured in Maria Novaro’s sensitive Mexican fiction feature Danzòn )
The halcyon period of the cool cats in Wenders’ film coincided with the swingin’ pre-revolutionary days of Generalissimo Fulgencio Batista. The poignant point of the film is that Castro’s revolution obscured the musicians and their music. The dramatic curve of the picture is thus one of triumphant vindication, of an almost heroic kind, very rare for director Wenders.
The result is arguably the finest film of its kind since the similarly intimate and somehow almost miraculously expansive musical event-movie, The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978). Buena Vista Social Club is also the most joyous celebration of the sights, sounds and aromas of Latin culture by sympathetic northern outsiders since the once very highly praised but today rather underrated French/Brazilian Academy Award andPalme d’Or winner Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus, 1959).
Music has always been integral to Wenders’ work, ever since his graduation project at the Munich Film and Television School, Summer in the City (1970), a film which established his long-standing working relationship with cinematographer Robby Müller. That film was of course titled after a hit by The Lovin’ Spoonful, and referenced the melancholy, and distinctly American, “urbanscapes” of painter Edward Hopper.
Hopper is a more crucial artistic parallel than his namesake, and Wenders’ fellow traveller, Dennis when it comes to understanding Wenders’ oeuvre. More so than any other director (except perhaps Wong Kar-wai), Wenders shares with Edward Hopper an abiding and recurring theme, described by art historian Wayne Craven as “[t]he loneliness of the city and the unrequited relationships of its people” (3). As artists Hopper and Wenders are defined by a career-long preoccupation with places, dislocation, and above all, the increasingly global American culture of the postwar era – a trait Wenders shares with his equally acclaimed das neue Kino peers Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. It is not difficult to see why America has been attractive to them. This has to do with what scholar Paul Buhle has described as the “shallow historic traditions and vibrant commercial culture” of the United States (4).
National Socialism, by contrast, that gruesome antithesis of the proverbial melting-pot, had of course been presented from an historicist viewpoint; ideologically rooted in a murkily mythical medieval Germanic past as much as in the modern scientific ideal of social Darwinism. After World War II, the generation gap became crystallised in the awful question posed pointedly by historian J. A. S. Greenville: “What did my parents do during the War?” (5). So it stands to reason that Wenders should feel liberated by popular and democratically populist American genres. The casting of his heroes Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray as gangsters in Der Amerikanische Freund (1977) is a more moving homage to American film than Godard has ever mustered, even when he was youthful and exciting. It is impossible to disagree with film historian Robert Sklar’s observation that the career of Wenders is “the exemplary case of Hollywood’s impact on New German Cinema”, a body of work that has met with more acclaim abroad than at home (6).
How fitting it is then that Wenders (born in 1945), who grew up under the guilty affluence of der Deutsche Wirtschaftswünder during the years of Cold War division and fluctuations of tension and détente, and whose films are informed by an ambiguous fascination with America, would eventually work his way around to an examination of what has been defined, in things like the Monroe Doctrine, as “America’s backyard”.
Roger Ebert was one of few critics who rather disliked Buena Vista Social Club, complaining about the “jittery” (shot digitally on Betacam) camera style, and that the filmmakers seemed in awe of Cooder’s presence, while at the same time acknowledging that there could have been no movie without him (7). At least a portion of this rebuke is misplaced. Carefully controlled framing and composition would surely be antithetical to the overflowing visual and aural vibrancy of the material. The film seems to exemplify scholar Howard Suber’s normative assessment of the musical genre as a whole: “In no film genre is energy and exuberance as important as in the musical. Nor is any other genre as much fun as the musical.” (8)
But the film’s exuberance and fun grows out of a serious documentary subject congenial to Wenders’ roving eye and his unique, off-beat sense of humour; so vital to younger hipsters Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki, firm College Film Society favourites, whose films would be nearly unthinkable without the example of Wenders’ delightfully droll early masterpieces Alice in der Städten (Alice in the Cities, 1974) and Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road,1976). As one of the characters says in the latter film: “The Yanks have colonised our subconscious”. It is only fitting that Wenders should deal with a country that is directly under the sphere of American political influence, while defiantly opposing that colonisation of its Latin culture and national politics.
In a way, Buena Vista Social Club is a cogent response to a question Wenders himself posed at the time of the release of Paris, Texas (1984), his biggest American success and one of his best loved films:
What happened to my own American Dream?
And can it be separated from the dream
that America dreams of itself?
If it is still dreaming at all….
What’s it about, this dream?
Who dreams it? And with what right?
But, first of all,
What is “American”? (9)
1. Frank M. Scheide, Introductory Film Criticism: A Historical Perspective, Kendall/Hunt, Dubuque, Iowa, 1994, p. 261.
2. Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, James Currey, Oxford, 1985, p. 13.
3. Wayne Craven, American Art, History and Culture, McGraw-Hill, Boston, 2003, p. 435.
4. Paul Buhle, “Introduction”, Popular Culture in America, ed. Buhle, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987, pp. vii-xvii.
5. J. A. S. [John Ashley Soames] Greenville, A History of the World in the 20th Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000, p. 843.
6. Robert Sklar, A World History of Film, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2002, p. 423.
7. Roger Ebert, “The Buena Vista Social Club”, RogerEbert.com 25 June 1999:http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-buena-vista-social-club-1999.
8. Howard Suber, The Power of Film, Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California, 2006, pp. 265-266. Emphasis in original.
9. Wim Wenders, “The American Dream”, Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema,trans. Sean Whiteside in association with Michael Hofmann, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1989, p. 124.
Buena Vista Social Club(1999 Germany/USA/UK/France/Cuba 105 mins)
Prod Co: Roadmovies Filmproduktion/Kintop Pictures/Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cubano Cinematogràficos (ICAIC) Prod: Deepak Nayar, Ulrich Felsberg Dir: Wim Wenders Scr: Wim Wenders, Nick Gold Phot: Jörg Widmer Ed: Brian Johnson
“Cast”: Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo, Ry Cooder, Joachim Cooder, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, Orlando “Cachaito” López