Saturday, August 01, 2009

Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil ‘09: Loki—Arnaldo Baptista

Arnaldo Baptista is the perfect artist for a Brazilian Behind the Music treatment. After leading Os Mutantes, a distinctly Brazilian rock band directly involved in the early development of Tropicália, he struggled with drugs and depression in the wake of their break up. It was good for the band while it lasted though—so good musicians and commentators are clearly resisting the temptation to call Os Mutantes the Brazilian Beatles throughout Paulo Henrique Fontenelle’s Loki—Arnaldo Baptista (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil Film Festival.

Os Mutantes took American and British style rock ‘n roll, and added Brazilian musical elements. Their collaboration with Gilberto Gil is considered a seminal moment in the evolution of Tropicália, and laid a foundation for the less defined Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) that followed. Yet given the mop-toppish look Baptista sported during the band’s glory days, the shadow of the Fab Five looms over the Mutantes.

Still, Baptista is quick to distinguish his group from the Beatles, by virtue of the female vocalist Rita Lee. She also played flute and Theremin on Mutantes records, and eventually married Baptista. However, the band’s lurch into prog rock territory left her somewhat marginalized within the group, and probably contributed to their break-up. The excessive LSD abuse probably did not help much either.

Once Lee left, Os Mutantes essentially jumped the shark. Of course, Baptista’s career did not end with Os Mutantes, but he would spend many years in the wilderness. He recorded deeply personally solo records, including the one which lends its name to the documentary. Like Miles Davis and Tony Bennett, painting also became another creative outlet for Baptista, which Fontenelle uses as a touchstone motif in Loki.

Unlike most music documentaries, Fontenelle ends his film on a triumphant note, celebrating Baptista’s re-emergence as an international ambassador of Brazilian music. Along the way, he seems quite diplomatic when documenting the distinctly low points of Baptista’s post-Mutantes career. Though conventional in its approach, Fontenelle gleans some insightful commentary from Baptista’s musical colleagues, including Gil and Tom Zé, as well as most of Os Mutantes. While the Lee’s absence is conspicuous, it becomes clear her split from Baptista and the band was such that her participation just wasn’t going to happen.

It is easy to hear why Os Mutantes made such an impression from the audio samples liberally sprinkled throughout the film. Despite it playful psychedelia, a tune like “Panis et Circenses” has a hauntingly familiar quality that gets into your head after only one listening. However, it is frustrating listening to the talking head speak over vintage performance footage, like Gil’s stirring rendition of “Domingo no Parque” backed up by Os Mutantes and a big band with strings.

Accentuating the positive, Fontenelle clearly has a lot of affection for his subject. The resulting Loki is an informative introduction to the man and his music that Brazilphiles should definitely enjoy. It screens during Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil on Monday (8/3) and Thursday (8/6) at the Tribeca Cinemas.