IF YOU TOLD ME IN 1997 THAT A RECORD BY A group of largely unknown Cuban musicians, many of whom were well past retirement age, would find a receptive audience in the United States, you'd have been told you were crazy. Yet that was the success story of the Buena Vista Social Club, a Cuban "super-group" whose self-titled album, released in '97, would eventually sell over a million copies, picking up a Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance along the way.

For the album's producer, multi-faceted musician Ry Cooder, the Grammy win was a moment of sweet vindication. As it turned out, though, the Grammy was just a step away from further adventures and acclaim. Interest in the individual Buena Vistas led to other recording offers, and in 1998 Cooder returned to Cuba to produce a solo album by Buena Vista singer Ibrahim Ferrer. He also invited director Wim Wenders along for the ride.

Welcome to Buena Vista Social Club--the movie--which played to two full houses at this year's Seattle International Film Festival and picked up a Golden Space Needle Award for Best Documentary. Though the film may come with a ready-made audience of Buena Vista fans, even those who aren't familiar with the music should have little trouble in being seduced by Buena Vista Social Club's vibrant rhythms and heartfelt stories.

Cooder describes the making of the Buena Vista album as something of a happy accident. Nick Gold, of London's World Circuit Records, wanted to record West African and Cuban musicians playing together, and tapped Cooder to be the project's producer. Cooder duly arrived in Cuba, but visa difficulties left the Africans stranded, "Which I'll always believe was the hand of fate working," says Cooder, "because that would've been an entirely different experience, one I can never imagine, quite frankly."

With help from the project's A&R consultant, a group of legendary Cuban musicians were tracked down and invited to record. Many had not recorded in years; others, like Ferrer, now 72 years old, had retired. They weren't even certain the album would be released. Then, while scoring Wenders' 1997 film The End of Violence, Cooder gave Wenders a cassette of his work with the Buena Vistas. Wenders was instantly won over.

"I listen to a lot of music, but this was really special from the beginning," says Wenders. "And I was curious. Ry told me about these people, and I thought he was telling some tall stories; I couldn't really believe this music was made by people in their 80s and 90s! Eventually I told him, 'Next time you go, I want to go with you.'

"A year later, Ry actually did go back," Wenders continues, "and he called me and said, 'By the way, you said you wanted to come. I'm going next week.' It didn't leave me much time, but I got a crew together, and in one week organized the shoot. Of course I felt completely unprepared, which was probably the best thing that could have happened to me."

With no script to follow, Wenders lets the story unfold naturally. The camera leisurely cruises the streets of Havana, picking up bits and pieces which gradually coalesce into a whole. Compay Segundo, the grand 92-year-old patriarch of the group, strolls down the street as he searches for the site of the original Buena Vista Social Club, pleasantly chatting with passers-by. The sweet-faced, unassuming Ferrer proudly shows off the altar to Saint Lazarus in his home, detailing the daily offerings he leaves (candles, fresh flowers). In the film's most beautiful sequence, the camera slowly ascends the stairs of a large open-air loft to discover 80-year-old Ruben Gonzalez quietly playing the piano, as a group of young ballerinas practice around him.

"Some people think, 'You scripted this, you set this up,'" says Cooder of the loft scene, "But it's not true. Life down there is surreal and peculiar. You see stuff like this. You see strange juxtapositions. And you see young and old people together everywhere. You don't see the old folks off the street. They're everywhere. And everybody's doing something interesting--even if they're doing nothing that's interesting!"

"It was like we had a script, in a strange way," says Wenders. "The music was a guideline, and we also had characters. In a documentary, normally you don't feel you have characters, but we did. These musicians, the more I shot of them, the more they became bigger than life. At the end, I felt I was making a movie with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Katherine Hepburn. They really had an incredible presence, and they were dignified, beautiful people, full of experience and the richness of life. In my eyes, they were great stars. In the film, we were able to witness them going from complete oblivion to standing on the stage at Carnegie Hall getting a standing ovation. That in itself was a story."

It's a story that also echoes the let's-put-on-a-show scenario of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films ("Totally," Wenders agrees, "it is that period"), and the three triumphant concerts (two in Amsterdam, one at Carnegie Hall) provide the film with a logical climax. "It gives closure to the story," says Cooder. "If we don't have that, we don't have a film." Still, Wenders would like Buena Vista Social Club's impact to go beyond the musical realm. "I do hope the film will help create a little cultural awareness of how rich Cuba is and what it has to offer," he says. "And, finally, how inoffensive and friendly a place it is after all."