Ibrahim Ferrer was shining shoes on the streets of Cuba in 1997 when Ry Cooder hired him as a lead singer for the Buena Vista Social Club. By the next year, he would be singing in Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Like many of the other Cuban musicians in the ensemble, Ferrer’s fame peaked in the 1940s and 50s. He had taken a hiatus from music in the years before the ensemble formed. This group of superabuelos, or “super grandfathers,” is the focus of Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club, which will be shown at the Gund Gallery on Thursday night. Their album of the same title won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album. Through the lens of pre-revolutionary Cuban music, the musicians’ stories give snapshots of Cuba between the 1920s and 1990s.
The screening is inspired by the Gund Gallery exhibition “Rhythmic Light: Contemporary Cuban Photography by Arien Chang Castán and Leysis Quesada Vera,” which spotlights two contemporary Cuban photographers.
The film cuts between the ensemble’s first ever performance in Amsterdam in 1998 and interviews with the members in Cuba. Viewers see 90-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, who has been smoking cigars for 85 years, recall lighting his grandmother’s cigars at age five. Omara Portuondo, the only female member of the group, sings “Veinte Años” with residents of her old neighborhood as she walks down the street.
Wenders shot the movie on two handheld cameras, which pan through Cuba’s natural world and its neighborhoods. Shots linger on locals moving a fridge from an apartment and small children learning gymnastics.
Each of the most prominent members show off their musical skill while playing their hit songs, as if the movie were a concert. Though many of these songs are played often on the radio in the United States, the film’s translations of the lyrics and the ensemble’s performances add a new dimension to these classic songs. Ferrer’s performance of the love song “Dos Gardenias” is sweeter than ever with the full translation, “Two gardenias for you / With them I mean to say / I love you, I adore you, my love.”
The film culminates with the ensemble’s trip to New York City to play at Carnegie Hall. In the same way the cameras explored Cuba earlier in the film, viewers see the ensemble exploring New York City. They stand in shop windows, trying to name all the celebrity figurines on display. They laugh and yell about the size of John Wayne’s gun in a movie poster. The final scene of the film focuses on Ferrer, the old shoe shiner, as he begins to cry tears of joy on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
Buena Vista Social Club will be screened on Thursday, April 12 at 7 p.m. in the Community Foundation Theater as part of the Gund Gallery’s Dinner and a Movie program.