Monday, July 16, 2012

Premiere Brazil! ’12: Songs

The Great American Songbook’s closest rival for addressing love and longing in rhymed couplets must be Brazilian popular song.  You do not have to understand Portuguese to get the message.  Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho explores how popular and personal songs shaped the memories of everyday people in the straightforwardly titled Songs (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 Premiere Brazil! continuing at MoMA.

The format could not be simpler.  Coutinho interviewed forty-two Brazilians, mostly from what could be called a working class background, about the role songs played in their lives.  Probably only two of the eighteen who made the final cut had any sort of prior professional performance experience.  After answering a series of questions, each will sing a song rife with meaning to them, completely a cappella. 

There is no question Déa Franco is a polished performer and a still vibrant screen presence.  A veteran of Ary Barroso’s talent shows, her showstopper ought to her a Buena Vista Social Club­-esque late career re/birth.  Barosso, perhaps best known for the song-suite “Watercolor of Brazil” featured in Disney’s Saludos Amigos, is one of a handful of musical legends who figure prominently in the memories of Songs’ subjects, along with Roberto Carlos and Jorge Ben. 

Under Coutinho’s coaxing, several “Miss Otis” moments are recalled the film.  When German expat Isabell Erdmann, the film’s other clear professional or semi-pro, tells of how she and another German friend were abruptly dumped by their Brazilian husband and lover respectively, Coutinho knowingly comments just how “Brazilian” that is.  Oddly though, the film’s emotional peak comes somewhat early when “Gilmar” shocks himself, tearing up at the memory of his seamstress mother singing “Esmeralda” as she worked.  It rather perfectly illustrates Coutinho’s point.

There is an unusual elegance to Coutinho’s Spartan approach, but the lack of accompaniment could prove limiting to the film’s appeal.  It is hard to see it taking off like the Buena Vista doc, even though it speaks directly to more universal experiences.  It also lacks the star power of established name on-camera participants to attract fests and distributors, so those interested had best see it when it screens during Premiere Brazil!  Recommended for fans of Brazilian music and unabashed sentimentalists, Songs screens this coming Wednesday (7/18) and next Sunday (7/22) at MoMA.