‘Buena Vista Social Club: Adios’ Offers A Return Visit From Some Cuban Legends

When Ry Cooder gathered a group of legendary Cuban musicians to record an album and tour together in 1998, time was of the essence, because many of them were well into their twilight years, having risen to prominence during the 1950s, when Batista still ruled the country. It was implicit that their inaugural tour would also be their farewell tour, and that the worldwide recognition they received, especially after Wim Wenders’ documentary Buena Vista Social Club became such a sensation, would conclude their story on a bittersweet high. By 2005, several prominent members of the group — the vocalists Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, the pianist Rubén González — had passed away.

With that in mind, it’s a surprise to see a second documentary, Buena Vista Social Club: Adios, appear in 2017, after mortality has thinned the musicians’ ranks. The good news is that other key surviving members, like vocalist Omara Portuondo and singer/guitarist Eliades Ochoa, are still performing and a younger generation of musicians is stepping up, including the son of trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal. The bad news is that Lucy Walker’s shoddily constructed documentary saves the new collective mostly for an extended postscript, focusing instead on retelling the story of the band’s original line-up and tracing all the personal and historical paths that finally intersected so late in their lives. There are few revelations here that weren’t already in Wenders’ film and far fewer performance scenes, too. It’s more like a supplement for fans, with 10% all-new footage.

Adios opens with shots of Havana in late 2016, after the death of Fidel Castro drops the country into an official nine-day mourning period. Cuba had changed dramatically in the years since the Buena Vista Social Club packed Carnegie Hall in 1998, but reflecting on that triumph leads one of its members to raise some questions: “What do these people really know about Cuba? What do they know about the history of our country? What do they know about the things we’ve been through?” From there, Adios flashes back to answer those questions in such detail that it doesn’t even get to point where Wenders enters the picture until 45 minutes have passed.

In that time, Walker gets into the ethnic roots of Cuban music, the historical upheaval of slavery and revolution, the government corruption which made the ’50s “golden age” possible, and the individual stories of five bandmates, only two of whom are still alive. (The surviving members, Portuondo especially, do much of the talking, as does British producer Nick Gold, but Cooder is conspicuously absent.) The stories they tell cast music as the salvation of hard lives: Segundo lost both his parents early in his life, which led him to drop out of school and roll cigars when he was 14; Ochoa’s family had no money, so he earned a living as a kid playing all night in brothels and bars; Portuondo was born to mixed-race parents at a time when segregation divided the country sharply; and Ferrer’s single mother died when he was 12, leaving him to take a job hauling 325-lb. sugar sacks on the docks of Havana. Later in life, after wasting his prime years as a backup singer, Ferrer retired to destitution, earning a few odd dollars shining shoes until Cooder and company plucked him from obscurity.

These are all vivid memories, but the original Buena Vista Social Club covered the essential territory already, to the point where some critics griped that the stories were stepping on the performance footage. Adios magnifies this flaw significantly, because it doesn’t appear like Walker has enough original footage to make a proper feature. Beyond a handful of interviews and brief walking tours through Havana and Santiago, the bulk of the material here is archival, with only a handful of scenes from the band’s historic White House performance after President Obama lifted the embargo and a few stops on the “Adios” tour.

The story of the Buena Vista Social Club remains a touching and significant one, and Walker does share some beautiful moments, like Portuondo singing Ferrer’s signature number, “Dos Gardenias,” over shots of his massive funeral procession. But Adios feels both disorganized and unnecessary, like an encore staged after the house lights have gone up and most of the audience has exited the building. Walker has the opportunity to place the band on a great continuum of Cuban music, arguing for the persistence of its tropical sounds through future generations. But her film remains stuck in past glories that have already been better articulated.