“Veinte Anos” (“Twenty Years”) is one of the signature songs on “Buena Vista Social Club” (1997), the Grammy-winning disc that turned a collective of elderly Cuban musicians into an international phenomenon. That album spawned a series of solo discs by Buena Vista stars Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Rubén González, and an Oscar-nominated documentary by German filmmaker Wim Wenders.
Twenty years later, many of the breakout Buena Vista stars have passed on to that great descarga in the sky, and the documentary “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios” reflects on the group’s legacy, against the backdrop of the changing political climate in Cuba — and in the United States. “Veinte Anos,” a famous bolero (ballad) about lost love, could also be a metaphor for the Buena Vistans themselves. Hoy represento al pasado (Today I represent the past) goes one line of the song, and by the mid-’90s the Buena Vistans, who flourished during the golden era of Cuban music in the ’40s and ’50s, had largely been eclipsed by time.
Whereas the original “Buena Vista” documentary was mostly apolitical, “Adios” subtly puts the BVSC phenomenon in political context. “Adios” begins with scenes of Havana in 2016, with waves breaking over the Malecón, as the death of Fidel Castro is announced over the radio. Next the documentary jumps back in time to the Buena Vistans’ landmark concert at Carnegie Hall in 1998. Juan de Marcos González, the Cuban bandleader, who, with American guitarist-producer Ry Cooder, organized the original Buena Vista recording sessions, serves as narrator for “Adios.” As Wenders’ camera pans over Carnegie Hall, de Marcos asks in a plaintive voice-over: “What do these people know about Cuba? What do they know about the things we’ve been through?”
Directed by British filmmaker Lucy Walker, “Adios” draws on more than 50 hours of outtakes shot by Wenders and his crew, as well as archival clips that chronicle the sagas of the individual Buena Vistans. Almost an hour goes by before the film settles into the present, as it documents the BVSC’s 2015 farewell tour. Thanks to the thaw in U.S./Cuba diplomatic relations, the group was invited to the White House, where it was the first Cuban-based band to perform there in more than 50 years. Even more remarkable, the Buena Vistans finally played Miami on the 2015 tour; pressure from the Cuban exile community had kept them away in the past.
Politics probably explains the relative absence of Ry Cooder in “Adios.” A curious note in the film’s end credits states “nothing should be construed as conferring by implication or otherwise an endorsement, approval or participation by Ry Cooder.” When he recorded the original Buena Vista albums in Cuba, the State Department actually fined him $25,000 for violating the U.S. embargo. Given the Trump administration’s reversal of the Obama-era thaw, Cooder most likely took precautionary measures.
Ultimately, “Adios” transcends politics and proves once again that music knows no boundaries. Like Wenders’ 1999 film, “Adios” stands as a testament to the human spirit. In the twilight of their careers, the Buena Vistans received long-overdue validation. Ferrer, who at 72 won the best new artist Latin Grammy (and had been shining shoes just years before), confesses: “I have to pinch myself to prove I’m not dreaming.”
By its nature, “Adios” lacks the thrill of discovery of Wenders’ doc. But like the 1999 film, it pulls at the heartstrings and never lets up. De Marcos, for instance, points out: “Ibrahim became a superstar … everyone’s going to remember him for a century. He got a second chance; he was touched by the hand of god.”
“Adios” is a must-see for Latin music fans — and anyone who believes that dreams really do come true.
Laura Emerick, former Sun-Times arts editor, is the digital content editor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Broad Green Pictures presents a documentary directed by Lucy Walker. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated PG (for historical smoking throughout, thematic elements and brief suggestive materials). In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Cinema and AMC River East.