Monday, July 21, 2008

Premiere Brazil: The Man Who Bottled Clouds

Humberto Teixeira was successful both in the music business and as a politician. If you suspect these demands on his time might have led to trouble in his family life, you have probably seen a lot of music documentaries, or at least read about them here. Indeed, it does sound like Teixeira and his daughter Denise Dummont had an awkward relationship, much of which evidently stemmed from her decision to pursue an acting career. Nearly thirty years after his death, she produced and co-wrote with director Lirio Ferreira The Man Who Bottled Clouds, a search-for-the-man-my-father-really-was style documentary which just received its world debut as part of the MoMA’s Premiere Brazil film series.

Teixeira is credited with popularizing the baião music of the hardscrabble northeastern provinces. Most visible through his collaborations with singer Luiz Gonzaga, he wrote over four hundred songs before his election to the national legislature representing his northeastern Ceará home. It would probably be helpful to get a general overview of Teixeira’s life before seeing Clouds at MoMA, because the subtitles often pose a real legibility challenge. (Oddly, as of today, English wiki does not have a Teixeira entry.)

Despite his political sojourn, it is music that defines Teixeira’s life. There are some revealing interview segments in Clouds, and Dummont opens up about some very personal moments they shared, but the film’s strongest sequences are its musical tributes. There are three killer renditions of “Asa Branca,” the unofficial Brazilian anthem he penned—sort of a Woody Gutherie style rural proletarian lament, except it really is a great song. We see historic footage of Caetano Veloso’s angst ridden version as well as David Byrne performing an English translation with Forro in the Dark live at Joe’s Pub. Byrne might be a bit of a loon (nice hat), but he nails it here.

Although Teixeira is not nearly as well known as many of his contemporaries in America, Brazilian musical royalty turned out for Clouds. We hear in interview and performances segments from Veloso, Gal Costa, Bebel Gilberto, and Miho Hatari. Other figures sharing their recollections of Dummont’s father include Gilberto Gil, Wagner Tiso, and the late Sivuca (who has a nice moment with Dummont that might be slightly off-topic, but shows the film’s heart).

Ferreira has a clever visual sense, literally bringing archival photographs to life. However, the quirkier interview segments approach the distracting. They are worth sitting through, even with washed out subtitles, for the fantastic music Clouds assembles. It screens again on Saturday and the following Monday.