Film Review – Buena Vista Social Club: Adiós, A Bittersweet Return

Photograph courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

Twenty years ago, director Wim Wenders captured and popularized the making of a band. It just so happened that the band was made up of men and women, mostly in their 60s and 70s (although some were in their 90s) who were among Cuba’s leading musicians and singers, many of whom had never even played together until they made an album under the name of the Buena Vista Social Club, which was also the name of the resulting documentary. The film captured the band recording its groundbreaking album in Havana and making a few choice stops on a world tour that took them, among other places, to New York’s Carnegie Hall.

In that movie, the musicians talked a bit about their long and storied history in music and the changing role of music in Cuba after Fidel Castro took power. But in the new film, Buena Vista Social Club: Adiós, director Lucy Walker (Countdown to Zero, Waste Land) doesn’t so much pick up where Wenders’ film left off. Instead, she revisits the musicians and dives deep into their individual histories with remarkable archival footage—some from a time where certain types of rhythmic music was forbidden—to find out about the lives these players and singers lived before musician Ry Cooder came to Cuba to capture these legends before the passed away.

As the titles of the film might indicate, quite a number of the first film’s subjects have died in the past two decades, so it’s particularly fitting and wonderful to fill in the gaps in their sometimes tragic life stories. Some were the victims of discrimination, simply because their skin was a darker shade than more popular artists. In the case of the group’s standout singer Ibrahim Ferrer, he was living in abject poverty when Cooder found him, having given up on music so many years earlier. We get background and updates of such dignitaries as Compay Segundo and the marvelous singer Omara Portuondo. The movie also shows us the full impact that the popularity of the original album had on the lives of those who played on it.

As much as the music still resonates and the most recent tour still resulting in dancing in the aisles, Buena Vista Social Club: Adiós has a sense of sadness rest just under its surface. Director Walker makes us wait until she’s told all of the backstories of these lovely people before revealing who is still with us and who isn’t. But above all else, she puts the music front and center, subtitling every song to reveal the tragic lyrics about slavery, death, revolution, and the occasional heartbreak. In other words, Walker makes us care about these soulful human being once again and then devastates us with who is dead or ailing.

The mood is more melancholy, and yet somehow, Adiós still finds way to celebrate and raise our spirits with rousing, passionate songs and hope for the future as the story also includes a performance in the Obama White House when the president lifted sanctions in 2015 and restored an open-door policy between the two countries for the first time since 1961. Less a sequel and more a deluxe edition of the first film—complete with a full slate of updates, new music, and a thorough set of visual liner notes—Buena Vista Social Club: Adiós is a worthy companion to the original film and well worth seeking out.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and the AMC River East 21.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.