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They Are Cuba.

By Coury Turczyn

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  For such a relatively small country, Cuba occupies a huge amount of our national attention—it is an obsession that has not faded since the initial rise of Fidel Castro or the 1962 missile crisis. Cuba has become a sort of forbidden kingdom, a mythical place that lives mostly in memory due to the strictures of territorial politics. Lately, a post-Cold War thaw in relations has been wafting in the air; perhaps one day it will allow us to revisit this neighbor and learn anew its cultural customs and way of life.

Until then, we can take a peek via The Buena Vista Social Club (NR, 1999, out on video next week), director Wim Wenders' exhilarating and frustrating documentary of producer/guitarist Ry Cooder's efforts to record the lost legends of Cuba's musical heyday. If you haven't heard the 1997 Grammy-winning CD of the same name, then you ought to buy a copy immediately—it's that good. The Buena Vista Social Club is sort of an all-star supergroup of Cuban artists who were forgotten even in their own country; now in their 80s and 90s, they nevertheless sing and play timeless Afro-Cuban jazz with a passion and artistry that's unmatched. Cooder managed to track down and gather them together, literally plucking some from the streets (heart-rendering vocalist Ibraham Ferrer, for instance, was shining shoes) to record in a Cuban studio and create an unexpected hit record. It's one hell of a story of cross-cultural musical bonding, of giving long-overdue tribute to amazing artists. Too bad Wenders' documentary only gives the barest outline of this story.

Rather than utilize a traditional documentary structure, Wenders simply turns the cameras on and lets the viewer pick up information where he can. In other words, there is no narrator telling you the backstory, no newsreel footage, nobody recollecting what happened in a linear fashion. Instead, we watch a recording session for Ferrer, listen as each band member describes how he or she learned to play their instrument, and view a live performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. This is interspersed with haunting street scenes of a decaying Cuba that seems flash-frozen in the '40s, with old American cars trundling along boulevards. All that's great stuff—though the digital video quality alternates from pretty good to ecch—but it never gels into an involving, informative narrative. About three-quarters of the way through the movie, Cooder at last mentions how the first record came to be—he was invited to Cuba by a record producer for a session that didn't work out, and ended up forming the Beuna Vista Social Club—but ultimately leaves so many questions unanswered.

What was the Cuban music scene like? How was it affected by Castro's rise? How important were these artists, and how did they come to be forgotten? How has the album changed their standing in Cuba today? For any fan of the album, The Buena Vista Social Club is a pleasure to watch—but ultimately dissatisfying.

For a dramatized slice of Cuban jazz mini-history, you can't get much better than The Mambo Kings (R, 1992), a tale of two Cuban brothers who flee to New York City, hoping to make it big in the '40s mambo scene. Armand Assante plays the fiery, hopeful Cesar to Antonio Banderas' sad, poetic Nestor (as his first English-speaking role, it is also Banderas' best). Brimming with fantastic music, hot-blooded drama, and lovely period details, it's the kind of movie that's often overlooked—except by those who've seen it. A delight.

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