Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Wim Wenders, who directed it, seems to have given his cameramen a few basic instructions which they follow over and over again for the entire movie. One shot of a camera circling a musician on a chair in a big room would have been splendid--especially since the interiors in the movie are of beautiful, decaying Havana locations. But the camera circles obsessively. In big empty rooms, in bars, on verandahs, in rehearsal halls, in a recording studio, it circles and circles, annoyingly.
When it isn't circling, there's another problem. The credits say the film was made on two digital cameras. One seems to have been hand-held by a cameraman with the shakes. One camera is level, smooth and confident. The other has the jitters, so badly that you can sense the editor cutting away from it as much as he can. The unstable hand-held look can be an interesting choice in certain situations. As a style, it becomes a problem.
Then there is the question of how to show Ry Cooder in the film. Yes, he is the godfather of this project, and there would be no film and no Buena Vista Social Club without him. But the filmmakers seem too much in awe of him. When the musicians give concerts in Amsterdam and at Carnegie Hall, the onstage footage keeps returning to a single repetitive camera move: Focus on musician, then pan up to Ry Cooder smiling benevolently. He is positioned in the top row of the onstage musicians, on the strong visual axis just to the right of center, and the camera keeps glancing up at him, as if for approval from the teacher.
Then there's the problem of presenting the music. I didn't expect a concert film, but I did expect that I might be allowed to hear one song all the way through, with the cutting dictated by the music. No luck. The songs are intercut with biographical testaments from the veteran musicians. These in themselves are splendid: The stories of how these performers grew up, learned their music, flourished, were forgotten, and then rediscovered, are sometimes amazing, always moving (as when we reflect that the singer Ibrahim Ferrer, "the Cuban Nat King Cole," dominating the orchestra and the audience at Carnegie Hall, was shining shoes when Cooder found him). But the movie's strategy is to show them in performance, then cut away to their story, leaving the songs stranded.