Monday, February 06, 2012

Oscar’s Best Nominee: Chico & Rita

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, scores of Cuban musicians found success playing in American. Chico and Rita were two of them—almost. Their Afro-Cuban musical romance comes alive in Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando’s Chico & Rita (trailer here), the winner of 2011 European Film Award for best animated feature and a surprise Academy Award nominee, which opens this Friday in New York.

Chico is a Bebop influenced piano player and something of ladies man. Rita is a beautiful and talented vocalist. During their first inauspicious meeting, sparks fly and maybe a few faces are slapped. However, when Rita reluctantly sings Chico’s newest song in a radio competition, it is magical. Suddenly, Chico & Rita are the act to book. They also start to admit their mutual attraction, but circumstances keep getting in their way.

Before long, Rita is signed by an American producer, who whisks her away to New York. Chico eventually follows her, hoping to gain entree into the jazz scene through his old compatriot, Chano Pozo, whose tenure in Dizzy Gillespie’s band led to the creation of the so-called Cu-bop fusion of Bebop and Afro-Latin Jazz. Of course, those who are familiar with their jazz history know Pozo is not long for this Earth. Likewise, Chico and Rita’s rekindled romance appears equally ill-fated.

As the director of Calle 54, arguably the best musical performance documentary frankly ever, Trueba’s participation inspires confidence and he does not disappoint. C&R is an instant jazz classic, featuring infectious and sophisticated original music by Bebo Valdés, whose life sort-of-kind-of inspired Chico’s story. But wait, there’s more, including the classic music of Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Woody Herman’s Four Brothers band, performing Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto (which Chico sight-reads early in the film). Still, not convinced? How about Freddy Cole performing one of Chico’s songs as his famous brother Nat, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath channeling Ben Webster, flamenco singer Estrella Morente appearing as herself, and a whole lot of Afro-Cuban percussion interspersed throughout the proceedings.

Movie musicals do not get much cooler than C&R. Yet, it is also deeply romantic. To their credit, the filmmakers do not ignore the grim realities of Castro’s Cuba either, depicting the mean living standards, frequent blackouts, and official government suppression of that “imperialist” music called jazz. Indeed, this is especially surprising in a contemporary Spanish film, though C&R duly and fairly decries the American racial segregation of the era as well, maintaining an ideological balance.

While C&R sounds fantastic, it also looks great. Rejecting strict realism, animation designer Mariscal’s figures compellingly evoke the spirit of Art Deco and Old Havana. In contrast, C&R’s backdrops are often much more detailed, giving the audience a virtual tour of the city at the height of its lost glory.

Indeed, all the elements fit together into an elegant, passionate, and ultimately moving film. It is recommended for anyone with a romantic spirit, but jazz fans will truly flip for it. C&R is easily the standout in its field and ranks as one of the most entertaining Oscar nominees of the year, in any category. It is quite a coup for GKids, who secured best animated feature nominations for Trueba and company as well as Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Feliciolli’s cute-as-it-can-be A Cat in Paris. Very highly recommended, C&R opens this Friday (2/10) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.