‘Buena Vista Social Club: Adios’ is an Unfocused Portrait of a Changing Band in a Changing Cuba

Lucy Walker’s disappoints with her follow-up to the Wim Wenders classic.

Lucky Walker’s Buena Vista Social Club: Adios opens with a moment of recent history: audio of news reports announcing the death of Fidel Castro, juxtaposed with images of children playing on Cuban beaches. This sequence is followed by a tour of the grounds upon which the legendary Buena Vista Social Club (the storied music venue from which the revival band adopted its name) once stood. In a striking visual summary of the relationship between pre-revolutionary Cuba, post-revolutionary Cuba and the Cuba to come, the place of the former club is now a sleek, compact gym like one you would find in an American strip mall. Bandleader Juan de Marcos González gives the camera a “tour” of the grounds, pointing to the building’s corners and explaining what glories once resided there. Any struggle to visualize what González describes is exactly the point: this is a piece of history that now risks becoming lost, save for the stories told by the patrons of Cuba’s musical culture.

This sense of loss forms a fitting framing device for revisiting the Buena Vista Social Club 20 years after the release of their blockbuster album and 18 years after Wim Wenders’s moving documentary portrait of the group (titled after the band). When American producer Ry Cooder helped to form the Buena Vista Social Club, his project quickly became an urgent effort to preserve Cuba’s musical history by gathering its aging talents. As Wenders’s documentary shows, these musicians embodied the history of 20th century Cuban music — not only in their enacting of said history through music, but in the rich, often difficult lives they endured throughout the nation’s transformations in culture and politics. The fortuitous timing of the Buena Vista Social Club project became all the clearer once the lively, passionate musicians began to pass away in quick succession over the last decade.

As the opening of Adios suggests, the time is ripe for examining what has happened to the members of the Buena Vista Social Club since it became a global phenomenon in the late 1990s. However, Walker’s film does not return to this framework until nearly halfway through its runtime, resulting in an often disjointed, unfocused feature that struggles to make clear its answer to a question with many fascinating possibilities: “Why this film? Why now?”

The first half of Adios resembles an alternate attempt at a definitive Buena Vista Social Club film, had a more conventional, context-heavy feature been made of the project in lieu of Wenders’s dreamlike portrait — complete with a compact rundown of Cuban cultural history over the beginning credits. Indeed, Adios even repurposes much of Wenders’s footage, including a B-roll conversation between Wenders and Cooder, as well as the first film’s washed-out footage of the group’s famous concert debut in Amsterdam.

Once Adios gets to the phenomenon of the Buena Vista Social Club itself — continuing where Wenders left off — Walker’s film is rarely content to spend more than a moment on any given topic. Footage of Cooder holding Grammys would seem a natural lead-in to the difficulties that singer Ibrahim Ferrer endured in acquiring a US visa to attend the awards show, but Adios instead quickly moves onto a collaboration between Ferrer and Omara Portuondo during recording, saving Ferrer’s Grammys story for a character portrait later in the film. While the film’s second half is stronger and more affecting than its first in portraying the twilight of these musicians’ lives and the effects of their unlikely, belated fame, Adios drains itself of any potential narrative momentum by treating the Buena Vista Social Club’s history as a checklist of items to cover.

For a film clearly made in answer to the genuine need of preserving the history of this band and their music, Adios is surprisingly slapdash in its efforts, making for an at-times unnecessarily frustrating viewing. On a technical level, Adios inconsistently provides the dates of depicted events and the provenance of archival and repurposed footage, especially in the film’s compendium of many, many interviews taken over the past 20 years. Even a final tribute to the late members of the band casts footage of individual musicians in a ghost-white post-production filter so heavy that it literally becomes difficult to see who is being memorialized.

Admittedly, there is really no reason not to make a Buena Vista Social Club film. If any band is impossible to over-expose, it’s this one. And Adios is brimming with great music alongside interesting stories from musicians. But for a musical project so ripe with history and history making, especially in the face of a changing Cuba, these subjects deserve a film with a clearer idea of what it has to say.