It’s been 20 years since the Buena Vista Social Club album made Cuban music a crossover sensation in the U.S. (for the first time since the ’50s), and 18 years since Wim Wenders’ documentary of the same title played in theaters. What’s become of the gifted musicians who found renewed or belated fame and fortune as a result of those projects? Buena Vista Social Club: Adios seeks to fill in the gap, but this sequel’s subtitle is all too literal. Many of the group’s most prominent figures were already quite elderly two decades ago. Sadly, the answer to the question “Where are they now?” tends to be “dead.” Nor did they pass away recently, after taking part in the new movie. Tres player Compay Segundo and pianist Rubén González, for example, both died back in 2003. Vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer died in 2005. Adios serves as a loving tribute to their memory, but has little else to offer that the original film didn’t provide.
There are other missing faces here, too. Wenders is credited as an executive producer, but otherwise appears to have had little to do with the film, which was directed by Lucy Walker (Waste Land). American musician Ry Cooder, who located the forgotten Cuban greats and assembled them into a supergroup, not only declined to participate, but inspired one of the most tortured end-credits disclaimers in cinema history. (“Nothing contained herein should be construed as conferring by implication or otherwise an endorsement, approval, or participation by Ry Cooder or any other person, entity, song, or composition of any kind with this documentary,” it reads in part.) Publicists imposed a strict review embargo until the film’s release date, which is unheard of for a documentary. There’s a story here, and it’s surely fascinating.
Even ignoring such weirdness, though, Adios just feels inessential—more of a bloated DVD supplement (it would have been perfect, in shorter form, for the recent Criterion release of Wenders’ film) than a proper movie in its own right. Much of the first hour simply retreads the Buena Vista Social Club origin story, though Walker does more and better research than Wenders did; the most compelling addition here is vintage footage of Ferrer and fellow singer Omara Portuondo from early in their respective careers, in the ’50s, when the former sang backup for bandleader Pacho Alonso and the latter (who’s still with us at age 86) was part of a girl group with her sisters. Only in the last 45 minutes or so does Adios shift into valedictory mode, offering farewells to seven musicians who’ve passed away since the first film. Even then, Walker is mostly forced to use what’s likely leftover material, because they died so long ago.
It’s easy to identify the older footage, too. Wenders happened to make the original Buena Vista Social Club at an unfortunate time, during the initial transition from celluloid to digital; the film was shot primarily on a Sony DigiBetacam, and suffers from the blotchy, pixelated look of the camcorder era. (It’s easily the least aesthetically appealing film that Criterion has ever released. Not their fault—that’s what they were given.) Adios features a whole lot of similarly ugly images, by necessity, but the newly shot material does at least do visual justice to Havana, with its blinding beaches and its beautifully dilapidated old buildings. It’s enough to make you wish that Wenders had shot the original on film, or that more of the key musicians had lived to see the advent of better digital cameras. But it’s not quite enough to justify Adios’ existence.