Wednesday, November 22, 2023

They Shot the Piano Player, the Bossa Animated Doc

It is a Bossa Nova mystery that technically remains unresolved, even though it is pretty clear what happened. Francisco Tenorio Jr. (who was simply billed as Tenorio Jr.) could have been the great piano improvisor of the Bossa Nova movement, even though a lot more bop came out in his solos than most of his contemporaries. Unfortunately, he disappeared off the streets of Buenos Aires when he went out looking for cigarettes or a sandwich (stories vary slightly in this respect). That was on the eve of the military coup and he looked like a scruffy musician, because he was. Years later, fictional magazine writer Jeff Harris sets out to tell his story in Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal’s animated hybrid documentary They Shot the Piano Player, which opens Friday in New York.

It all started with a magazine article about Bossa Nova. Would it be fair to ask someone to sum up punk rock in 2,500 words, because Bossa Nova would be even harder. Regardless, it was apparently all new to
New Yorker readers. Indeed, the article is such a hit, Jessica offers him a contract to expand it into a book (by the way, if there are any interested editors out there, I’m available and kinda sorta speak Portuguese). Soon thereafter, Harris is back in Brasil, conducting interviews with Bossa Nova legends, arranged by his old friend, Joao.

However, Harris soon falls into a Tenorio Jr. wormhole, having discovered the pianist’s only session as a leader. Of course, Joao enables him, helping secure interviews with Tenorio’s widow and close musical collaborators. Inevitably, the trail leads him to Argentina, where the government’s human rights commission is always more than happy to discuss the Dirty War.

Chico & Rita, Trueba exposed the oppression of Castro’s Cuba, so maybe it is only fair he takes aim at the Brazilian and Argentine military coups this time around. Both films look and sound incredibly cool, because they combine jazz and animation. They also have one happy constant: the late, amazingly great Bebo Valdez, who appears (animated) as himself, playing one of Tenorio’s tunes.

In fact, the music might even be better in
They Shot the Piano Player. We hear classic selections from Joao Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Vinicius de Moraes, and, obviously, Tenorio. Plus, there are rotoscoped (live action translated into animation) interviews with the likes of Chico Buarque, Joao Donato, Edu Lobo, and Milton Nascimento. Yet, perhaps the most emotionally resonant segment features Bud Shank (who sold an awful lot of collaborations with Brazilian musicians in the 1960s, but never truly got the recognition he deserves), who apparently learned Tenorio’s tragic fate during the interview.

Jeff Goldblum also has the perfect hipster smarty-pants stammer for the nebbishly cool Harris. I can believe he is a music writer and I would know. Rotoscoped animation often gets a bad rap, but Trueba and Mariscal evocatively pump up the warm tropical colors. They also cram a lot of knowing little details into each scene. Having been to “Bottles Alley” (Beco das Garrafas), the widely accepted birthplace of Bossa Nova, I can attest to the faithfulness of their renderings.

This is a stylish love letter to Bossa Nova. (It also briefly pays tribute to the French New Wave, which the title clearly references.) Trueba and company are probably smarter about music than politics, but frankly, music should always be more important than politics. Highly recommended for the Bossa and the animation,
They Shot the Piano Player opens this Friday (11/24) in New York, at the Village East.