Thursday, August 06, 2009

Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil ’09: Simonal—No One Knows How Tough It Was

In the 1960’s, every self-respecting Brazilian bachelor pad was stocked with vocalist Wilson Simonal’s records. However, in the 1970’s, he was shunned like a pariah. The music business is certainly hard and unforgiving, but a series of personal controversies made it especially so for Simonal, as co-directors Cláudio Manoel, Micael Langer, and Calvito Leal document in Simonal—No One Knows How Tough It Was (trailer here), currently screening in New York as part of the Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil film festival.

Likened to Sammy Davis, Jr. in the film, Simonal’s soulful vocals and commanding stage presence made him one of Brazil’s top all-around entertainers. He perfected a blend of orchestral pop, soul, and Brazilian musical styles known as “pilantragem.” However, having ruled the Brazilian charts for several years, Simonal was a bit concerned when his accountant Rafael Vivani informed him he was fast approaching bankruptcy. His response to Vivani would be rather uncharitably characterized by the accountant as kidnapping and extortion. Serious charges perhaps, but it was the unsubstantiated stories of Simonal’s complicity with the military authorities which emerged during the resulting trial that really derailed his career.

Suddenly, Simonal’s name was anathema to the Brazilian Left, which included pretty much the entire music scene. He would scuffle and mount comebacks for the remainder of his life, but he never reclaimed a fraction of his past glory. Following his death in 2000, his sons continued Simonal’s campaign to clear his name in the Brazilian media, and indeed, their participation in Tough can be considered part of that effort.

While Manoel, Langer, and Leal do not definitively “exonerate” Simonal, they clearly present him in a sympathetic light. They interview many of his close associates, even including a still somewhat annoyed Vivani. However, many of Simonal’s musical contemporaries, like Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque, are notable for their absence. (At least Paulo Moura and Nelson Motta stepped up to the camera, as did Brazilian football hero Pelé.) Still, the film provides a great deal of musical and political context for the singer’s turbulent life and times.

Regardless of the mistakes Simonal made in life, his music sounds as smooth as a cool drink on a warm Brazilian beach. Though some repetitive talking head segments could stand a bit of a trim, Manoel, Langer, and Leal tell a compelling story, set to some groovy tunes. Tough screens again during Cine Fest Petrobras this Friday (8/7) at the Tribeca Cinemas.