American guitarist and “roots music” exponent Ry Cooder, backed by World Circuits Radio, came to Havana in 1996 with the intent to cut a collaborative album between Cuban and Malian musicians. The latter, unfortunately, didn’t get a visa. Hence Cooder instead hunted down renowned Cuban old-timers – some of them retired, most at advanced ages, and nearly all completely forgotten from public memory – and made an exuberant son cubano, bolero and mambo album named after the titular long defunct club – that was once a haunt for black and brown artists – in what became a smashing, Grammy-winning international phenomenon. The eponymous Wim Wenders documentary, made couple of years after the album’s euphoric release that’d turned its performers into globetrotting stars at the twilight of their lives, is a work suffused with joy, nostalgia, zest, warmth, hints of melancholy and an abundance of musical effervescence. Wenders largely employed a conventional approach by alternating “live” musical performances – mix of jamming sessions and concerts – with talking head interviews edited into monologues. It was, however, bereft of expositional voiceovers and additional contexts beyond the interviewees’ stories, and that creative choice – along with the the sense of intimacy evoked through the candid, funny, lively monologues; the enthralling vitality of the performances at Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall; and Havana’s absorbing, laidback, crumbling, cigar-chomping atmosphere – made it an infectious ode to Cuban culture. The individual stories were especially arresting, covering silken crooner Ibrahim Ferrer who’d been reduced to shining shoes, legendary octogenarian pianist Rubén González who didn’t have a proper piano in a decade, nonagenarian vocalist and composer Company Segundo who wishes to father another child, vivacious prima donna Omara Portuondo, trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, et al.
Director: Wim Wenders