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Movie Review: Buena Vista Social Club

Rating: *****

Onstage in Cuba, tourists cavort in magical kingdoms created for them by enterprising resort developers. Backstage is a Cuba few can imagine, let alone visit. And it's gently pulsing to the beat of son -- Cuba's unique blend of Spanish-African dance music that is sung.

The players in Buena Vista Social Club tell the story of that Cuba on the wings of their son, their lives, their hopes and dreams. This labor of love by guitarist and composer, Ry Cooder, stars some of Cuba's greatest musicians. Cooder searched high and low to find these venerable vestiges of an elite that played in Havana's hot spots from the 1920s on, including in the Buena Vista, an old members-only social club.

This Cuba has to be felt. And the documentary, with its grainy images, natural lighting and authentic props, not only transmits its sights and sounds, but also conjures up its smell and feel. Directed by Wim Wenders, Buena Vista Social Club captures the decay of decadence in a country in limbo by zooming in on crumbling mansions; vintage cars; lingering crowds; an empty palace.

The musicians are the relics of a bygone era in the relic that is Cuba. But these souls, forgotten by their own people, gain new life on the stage of this film, and shine new hope onto their world. Septuagenarian Ibrahim Ferrer, dubbed "Cuba's Nat King Cole" by Cooder, naturally dominates much of the film with his titan talent. He takes us home to his tiny Havana apartment with its worn linoleum, vinyl furniture and cluttered altar to St. Lazarus. He sings about love, about work, about everyday life. And he trembles at the magnificence of New York City.

The movie also takes us onto the stages of the world, where these original Buena Vista Social Club players enthrall packed houses. By interspersing sepia-toned concert scenes with the high colours of Havana's painted doors, ancient convertibles, cotton shirts -- Wenders underlines this fading era. And the story concludes with a dream come true -- playing Carnegie Hall. But it's the last hurrah for this aged group.

The words of a song by Celia Romero sum up how the music has survived: "The bongos, the guitar and the giro haven't stopped playing. That's how the peasants are; they have no reason to stop. It's been peasant tradition since colonial times."

In theaters now, the film will be out on video Dec. 14.

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Ratings guidelines:

***** Can't imagine a better job
**** Good, but could be improved
*** Close, but no cigar
** Mediocre and hopefully cheap
* Don't waste your time