Sunday, July 03, 2022

Sergio Mendes in the Key of Joy

Sergio Mendes probably holds the bossa nova sales record for 8-track tapes. He sold tons of crossover bossa records for A&M from the mid-1960s to the early-1970s. For most Americans, his “Mas Que Nada” is the definitive version (sorry Jorge Ben Jor), but his vocal arrangements often got him tagged with labels like “lounge” or “easy listening.” Nevertheless, he kept selling. The perennially popular musician takes stock of his life and career in John Scheinfeld’s documentary, Sergio Mendes in the Key of Joy, which has a special screening-reception this Thursday to benefit the Sonoma Independent Film Festival.

Despite achieving his international fame in the U.S., Mendes was still enough of a Brazilian icon to work with Pele scoring the football legend’s 1977 documentary. He was also jazz enough to recruit Gerry Mulligan to play on it. Jazz fans might wish Scheinfeld discussed those original sessions more, but most Brazilians will be more interested in his reunion with Pele, which is captured in the film.

Originally in Brazil, Mendes was mentored by Tom Jobim, but he left to pursue a musical career in the USA, as a way to escape the stifling climate under the military regime. His Brasil ’65 band sounded more like the classic bossa artists, but it had trouble catching on. However, the soft, warm vocals of Brasil ’66 were an immediate hit for A&M. The label owner-producer Herb Alpert was also quite interested in Brasil ‘66’s vocalist, Lani Hall (his future wife). Much like Mendes features prominently in
Mr. A & Mr. M: The Story of A&M Records, Alpert and Hall are logically heard from throughout Key of Joy.

Scheinfeld does a nice job covering the greatest hits of Mendes’s career and the ups-and-downs of his life. The last half-hour or so is largely dominated by Mendes’s collaborations with the likes of, Common, and John Legend, but unlike documentary rip-offs of Tony Bennett’s
Duets, these sessions each came about organically, in very different contexts, rather than as a contrived gimmick to bestow new commerciality on an older artist.

There is also a good blend of Brazilian and American perspectives. Scheinfeld’s talking heads give viewers a good sense of the early Rio bossa nova scene and A&M’s hitmaking heyday. He also choses some picturesque backdrops for Mendes’s reminiscences, like Oscar Niemeyer’s Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum. Perhaps the most surprising (and amusing) interview subject is Harrison Ford, who helped construct Mendes’s home studio while scuffling as a carpenter, before his film career took off. (Honestly, it is a little frustrating to realize this is probably his best film in the past five years, if not longer.)

The audience hears most of Mendes’s biggest hits, as well as a number of bossa versions of jazz standards. It all sounds soothing and Rio always looks lovely. Watching
Key of Joy, it is hard to escape the catchiness of his music. After all, “Mas Que Nada” is now stuck in your head, because I put it there. Recommended for fans of Mendes, bossa nova, and A&M pop, Sergio Mendes in the Key of Joy has a special screening this Thursday (7/7) in Sonoma (and streams on Tubi).