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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.77:1 Widescreen
  • Spanish DTS-HD 5.1 Surround
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Audio commentary from 1999 featuring director Wim Wenders
  • New interview with Wim Wenders
  • We Believe in Dreams, a new piece featuring never-before-seen outtakes from the rehearsals for the Buena Vista Social Club’s Amsterdam concerts
  • Interview from 1998 with musician Compay Segundo on his career and the Cuban music scene
  • Radio interviews from 2000 featuring musicians Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, and others
  • Additional scenes
  • Trailer
  • An essay by author and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Buena Vista Social Club

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Wim Wenders
1999 | 105 Minutes | Licensor: HanWay Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #866
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: April 18, 2017
Review Date: April 27, 2017

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amazon.com  amazon.ca

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SYNOPSIS

Traveling from the streets of Havana to the stage of Carnegie Hall, this revelatory documentary captures a forgotten generation of Cuba’s brightest musical talents as they enjoy an unexpected brush with world fame. The veteran vocalists and instrumentalists collaborated with American guitarist and roots-music champion Ry Cooder to form the Buena Vista Social Club, playing a jazz-inflected mix of cha-cha, mambo, bolero, and other traditional Latin American styles, and recording an album that won a Grammy and made them an international phenomenon. In the wake of this success, director Wim Wenders filmed the ensemble’s members—including golden-voiced Ibrahim Ferrer and piano virtuoso Rubén González—in a series of illuminating interviews and live performances. The result is one of the most beloved music documentaries of the 1990s, and an infectious ode to a neglected corner of Cuba’s prerevolutionary heritage.


PICTURE

Wim Wenders’ documentary Buena Vista Social Club gets a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection, who present it in the aspect ratio of about 1.77:1 on a dual-layer disc. Considering the digital video source I was expecting this to be interlaced, so I was surprised to see the image is presented in a progressive 1080p/24hz.

Similar to Hoop Dreams, And Everything is Going Fine, and parts of Jacque Tati’s Parade this is one of those titles that is really hard to talk about in terms of video presentation without sounding like you’re trashing it because it ultimately is what it is, limited by the source materials. Wenders shot the film in PAL using a MiniDV camera along with a digital Betacam, meaning the finished film will have to be, for lack of a better word, upscaled for Blu-ray.

Though I must say the image probably looks better than I would have expected the short-comings of the source materials are always present. Since the film was recorded in PAL that means there are more lines of resolution, so Blu-ray does at the very least offer the full resolution of 625 lines, where DVD would limit it to 480 (and I’m sure it’s safe to say the Criterion DVD edition will do just that). Blu-ray also has the ability to present the image with as little compression as possible. With those advantages present detail is fine but there’s always a fuzziness present, with some minor pixilation and noise working its way in there. We also get other digital anomalies like jagged edges and shimmering, the latter of which being especially noticeable on some of the tighter patterns that pop up, like the cross-hatching on Compay Segundo’s jacket. Occasionally we also get ringing around objects in front of brighter backgrounds and minor halos.

But again this is the source and a byproduct from filming. There isn’t much anybody can really do to “improve” this. But, like Criterion’s Hoop Dreams, there are still some surprises. For one the colours look really good. There are some really rich reds and blues present. Even the drabber colours of the Havana streets manage to offer strong saturation levels and fairly natural looking colours. I also found black levels to be pretty good, with crushing only becoming a real issue in the more low lit scenes (and this is more than likely again an issue with the original photography). It also improves over the previous Artisan DVD in one fairly substantial way: that DVD, which had an interlaced image, had a real problem with ghosting. I’m taking a guess the source itself is interlaced but it isn’t so evident here, maybe aided by the progressive presentation. Because of that the ghosting is gone, or at the very least it wasn’t noticeable to me. This made for a much more pleasant viewing and honestly it probably makes this upgrade from the old Artisan DVD worthwhile all on its own.

Since the source is digital there are no “print flaws” to speak of: the shortcomings are limited to the lower resolution being output at high-definition. It may look like a better-than-average DVD presentation, if that, but considering what they’re working with this still does look better than I anticipated.

6/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

With the image not being a huge selling point for the disc (why buy a Blu-ray when the cheaper DVD might do?) I think that’s more than made up for with rather stunning DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround presentation. A majority of the film is fairly low-key, catching the busy streets of Havana and some of the social gatherings, though it’s all delivered very effectively. Audio quality is clear, everyone is easy to hear, and the music that appears during some of the smaller jams or in studio sessions sound really incredible. Range and fidelity are both nice and there is some nice surround activity, with some nice splits and direction.

What absolutely blew me away about this track was the audio in the concert segments. The range is far wider, the volume levels reaching higher levels without distortion being present, and it’s all crystal clear and lifelike with incredible fidelity. The music is mixed brilliantly through the surrounds, placing you right in the middle of the concert hall, with the audience applause completely surrounding you, sounding so rich and crisp. I really found the acoustics incredible during these moments and was really just awed by it. Maybe the image isn’t what you expect for Blu-ray but the audio presentation more than makes up for any of its shortcomings. It sounds absolutely delightful.

10/10

SUPPLEMENTS

I remember thinking Artisan’s DVD at the time was a pretty decent special edition, though looking at it now Criterion clearly tops it. Criterion does port over the audio commentary with Wim Wenders, with Criterion also adding a new 26-minute interview with the director to accompany it. The commentary is a good one, packed with a lot of details about how he got involved in the production and the twisty road it took to completion, like the addition of the concerts, which weren’t originally planned. He also talks about the editing process and a little about the advantages of using the camcorders: his crew looked like tourists so they could film in places that the Cuban government wouldn’t have let them as filmmakers. Wenders also shares stories about the country and the people, as well as the poverty he came across. Despite any issues, though, Wenders loved the experience, and he shares more personal stories about the friends he made making this film.

The new interview is sort of a summarization of the commentary you could say, Wenders talking about the film on a more broad level (the commentary has the advantage of allowing Wenders to focus on particular moments in the film) and he shares some of the same stories (like his recollection of when a young girl returned a $20 bill he dropped) but he also offers a handful of updates since the time. Both offer informative backstories to the film’s production but if you only decide to go with one the commentary is the more satisfying supplement.

There are then a few other substantial supplements. Some of the most intriguing are a collection of radio interviews with a number of the musicians from the film, including Eliades Ochoa, Manual “Puntillita” Licea, Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Barbarito Torres, Pio Leyva, Ruben Gonzalez, Manuel Galban, and Alberto “Virgilio” Valdes. They were recorded for a radio program around the time of the film’s release, are presented here over stills taken from the interview, and run 95-minutes total. Each participant talks about various subjects, from the experience of touring and making the film, while also talking about their music. I was probably most amused by Licea’s contribution, where he explains how Ry Cooder was riding Cuban music’s coattails, though I don’t think he’s saying it in a malicious way.

Interestingly missing from the audio interviews is Compay Segundo but he appears in a one-hour interview from the Spanish television show Las Claves and I found this a very rewarding addition. Mixed with clips of performances and various other bits of footage, Segundo talks extensively about the influences on his music, recalling his childhood and life, which then leads into some historical details about Cuban music through the years. It’s a really rich discussion and a wonderful find.

Criterion then includes four deleted scenes that look to be lifted right from the Artisan DVD with yellow subs and appearing heavily interlaced. At any rate, we get more footage from one of the concerts and then from a recording session, along with an extended interview with Juan de Marcos Gonzalez about the period of Cuban music. There’s also more footage of Alberto Korda going over his photographs, particularly his famous Che Guevara one, and then how he stores his negatives. I can see why Wenders would want to include these trims as they’re all good (and the must mean something to him since out of the hours and hours of footage he only picked these four) but I could see where he probably couldn’t fit them in the film. Altogether they run about 22-minutes.

The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer and Criterion includes a booklet. Yes, an honest-to-God booklet, which is a surprise since there isn’t a lot of content here. At any rate, the booklet does add some class to the release, and features an essay by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, who goes over the production, what Wenders focuses on in the film, and offers some more historical, social, and political context. The booklet also adds a number of photos taken during the production Donata Wenders. It’s not an extensive booklet but it’s a nice looking one.

Criterion doesn’t carry over any of the text features from the Artisan DVD, though this is to be expected. Criterion more than covers that material anyways, which was more about the subjects of the film and those involved in making it. In all it’s a very well rounded and extensive set of material, all of it well worth going through.

9/10

CLOSING

It’s true that this Blu-ray probably only offers a minor upgrade over previous DVD editions (though I would say the lack of severe ghosting is a huge improvement) or possibly even Criterion’s own DVD edition (I haven’t seen it) but the real selling point to this edition is the audio, which sounds absolutely fantastic here. That aspect paired with some insightful and entertaining supplements makes this edition a very worthwhile upgrade.


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