The level of your fondness for Buena Vista Social Club, both the 1997 landmark album and 1999 documentary film of the same name, will likely be the determining factor in whether you see Buena Vista Social Club: Adios. The original was like a perfect bottle of rum, but the sequel... well, it's as if someone left the cap off for the past 20 years. The kick is still there, but it's a little stale.
"The flowers of life come sooner or later," said Cuban guitarist Compay Segundo who, following the 1997 album and 1999 film, was showered with fame and Grammy awards in the final years of his life. "Pay attention, because the flowers only come once," he added.
His words are often repeated by his BVSC survivors in the new film. In the 1999 documentary, the line was clever and candied. Hearing it repeated in the sequel, it comes across as peppery and prescient.
By the late 1990s, the Buena Vista Social Club was a bit of a musical mystery. The members-only club, home to Havana's best musicians, saw its greatest popularity in the 1940s. In the years that followed, which were defined by political tension and a subsequent travel embargo, few Americans walked through the doors of the club. But in 1996, with the blessing of the U.S. State Department, American guitarist Ry Cooder traveled to Havana to help produce a new recording of the club musicians. The album was even recorded in a rarely-used Havana studio that had once been owned by RCA records in the mid-20th century, before the embargo. The 1997 album rocketed to the top of international music charts and was included in Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the greatest albums of all time, one of only two records on the list produced in a non-English-speaking country. German filmmaker Wim Wenders documented the Havana recording and the rare, live performances that followed (there were only two concerts: one in Amsterdam and the other in New York City, both in 1998). Wenders' documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, was nominated for an Oscar in 2000 and still holds a "91 percent" certified fresh ranking on the Rotten Tomatoes website. For anyone who loves music, documentaries and especially both, it's still required viewing. I've lost count of how many times I've seen the 1999 film, and it just gets better every time.
With the 2016 normalization of travel and trade between the U.S. and Cuba, there is a fever-pitch interest in all things Cuban, and Buena Vista Social Club: Adios—directed by Lucy Walker (Wenders is executive producer)—should be cinematic catnip for Cubaphiles.
While this new film is better than most recent offerings, it still falls significantly short in capturing the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the original. The new film, about 15-20 minutes too long, is a sometimes muddled affair and too often turns the camera lens away from the musical performance, instead choosing to expose the fissures of growing old. Some of the surviving musicians of the club get downright nasty in front of the camera, and it turns out they weren't too thrilled with their fame. These haven't exactly been the golden years at the club. It has been more like the brass age.
Yes, Buena Vista Social Club: Adios is offten entertaining and affectionate; but pour me a shot of rum and I'll tell you why I much prefer the soundtrack. Just don't pour from the bottle that has been uncorked all this time.