Elis Regina was only the second vocalist to record “Waters of March.” The first and third were its composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, who initially cut the classic bossa tune on a very rare and collectible promotional EP. Regina was the first to bring the song to a popular audience—and did she ever. She also introduced songs by Edu Lobo, Vinícius Moraes, Chico Baurque, Ivan Lins, and Milton Nascimento. Many consider her the greatest Brazilian vocalist of all time, so who are we to disagree? Regina’s short but dramatic life gets the musical bio-pic treatment in Hugo Prata’s Elis (trailer here), which screens this Friday as part of the Music+Film: Brazil series.
Born Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, she often went by just plain Elis and released several confusingly eponymously single-named albums. She had the misfortune of arriving on the scene shortly after the military putsch put on chill on recordings sessions, but her talent would not be denied. Initially, she was a country naïf from the south, who sure could sing, but under the tutelage of producer/impresario Ronaldo Bôscoli, she incorporated seductive elements into her stage presentation. It worked so well, he became her first husband. Jazz musician-arranger César Camargo Mariano would be her second, longer tenured spouse.
“Elis” took pride in her success, cannily reflecting shifts in tastes, in a manner somewhat similar to Miles Davis. She sang samba, bossa, BPM, and even rock. Frankly, her popularity kept her out of prison, but the increasingly radicalized singer would be ironically slammed by the left when she agreed to perform at a ceremony for the military junta. Her attempts to re-establish her dissident credentials essentially constitute the film’s climax, but there is another twenty-minutes or so of the grouchy, self-destructive Elis, who isn’t much fun to spend time with. Alas, such are pitfalls of biography-based films, which are often locked into not especially cinematic conclusions, because that is the historical reality.
Andréia Horta is sensational as the legendary singer. Generally, she is a good likeness, except maybe slightly less earthy and more glamorous. She certainly never waters down the subject’s less edifying moments either, making both the film and performance surprisingly balanced. Likewise, Gustavo Machado clearly has no reservations when it comes to making husband #1 look like a jerkweed, while Caco Ciocler gives the film some soul and an accessible audience vantage point as husband #2.
Of course, the music is sounds terrific (even though “Waters of March” is largely glossed over). Somewhat counter-intuitively, Mariano’s Som Trés piano trio rendition of “Samblues” has particularly prominent placement, but it is an infectious showcase for his dazzling chops, so why not?
Biographical dramas about musicians usually follow a familiar trajectory, which is indeed the case with Elis. There is the early explosion of success, the mid-career struggle with inner demons, and finally the redemptive third act that is eventually cut short by physical or emotional baggage rooted in the second stage. Such is true of Elis too, but the redemptive part is shorter than typical. Yet, the facts are the facts. Fortunately, the music is also the music—and Prata shrewdly keeps the film fully stocked with classic tunes by Regina and her contemporaries. Recommended for fans of all genres of Brazilian music, Elis screens this Friday (12/15) at Symphony Space, as part of Music+Film: Brazil.