In the realm of cinematic storytelling, “They Shot the Piano Player” stands out as an exceptional and unconventional creation. Directed by the talented duo of Fernando Treuba and Javier Mariscal, this film seamlessly combines the enchanting world of jazz music with the captivating allure of animation, all while unraveling a tale deeply rooted in both cultural appreciation and political turmoil.
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At its core, “They Shot the Piano Player” pays a heartfelt tribute to the bossa nova movement that reached its zenith in the 1960s. Simultaneously, it delves into the sobering realities of state-sanctioned violence against musicians during the rise of fascistic regimes in 1970s Latin America. It’s a documentary, or at least primarily nonfiction in nature, yet it ingeniously employs a fabricated framing device. Furthermore, the film is entirely hand-drawn, a testament to the artistic craftsmanship that went into its creation.
For those who appreciate cinematic ventures that defy conventions, “They Shot the Piano Player” is a must-see. It may not offer a grand narrative climax, but it compensates with an array of captivating individual scenes. The heart of the story revolves around the enigmatic Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior, who mysteriously disappeared, or was perhaps “disappeared,” during a tour in Argentina in 1976.
The film introduces a fictional New Yorker journalist, voiced by the iconic Jeff Goldblum. Initially tasked with crafting a retrospective piece on bossa nova, the journalist’s focus gradually shifts towards uncovering the truth behind Tenório’s fate. While it becomes evident that Tenório was likely abducted and killed by paramilitary forces during his tour, the film’s strength lies in the poignant conversations between the journalist and Tenório’s widow, children, mistress, and bandmates. These dialogues explore the personal void left by Tenório’s absence, the chilling banality of sanctioned evil, and the enduring legacy of exceptional musicianship.
For those unfamiliar with the film, a puzzling mystery awaits: What is fact, and what is fiction, amidst the beautifully vivid illustrations of seemingly authentic monologues? The answer lies in the filmmakers’ innovative approach. Approximately 15 years prior, Fernando Treuba initiated interviews with Tenório’s contemporaries and survivors, intending to create a conventional live-action documentary. However, an epiphany led to the decision to transform it into an animated narrative with the collaboration of Mariscal. Both directors were previously nominated for an Oscar for their work on “Chico & Rita,” and this venture saw them pushing the boundaries of animation once again. Rather than animating himself as the central investigative figure, Treuba introduced the character voiced by Goldblum, adding a distinctive layer to the project.
The film’s juxtaposition of bossa nova’s sensual allure with the grim political backdrop of 1970s Latin America is nothing short of deliberate. It creates an ambiance that is both intentional and inescapable, drawing viewers into a peaceful, easy feeling throughout the movie, even as they are reminded of the pervasive dread that consumed the region at the time and the military coups that claimed countless lives, including Tenório’s.
While the film gradually unfolds the details of Tenório’s life and disappearance, it occasionally revisits certain aspects, which may appear repetitive to some viewers. Nonetheless, the film never ceases to be visually captivating. The animation style, though slightly unconventional with its jerky transitions, adds to the film’s distinctive charm. Mariscal’s use of vibrant, almost DayGlo color palettes breathes life into locations from New York to Rio to Buenos Aires. Even the talking-heads interviews, which could have been monotonous in a live-action format, hold a casual fascination within this vivid artistic palette.
One of the film’s standout moments is the recreation of Tenório’s 1964 recording session as a band leader. Treuba and Mariscal’s animation work transforms this performance into a visually mesmerizing musical cinematic experience. Their innovative techniques for presenting the performances of Tenório and his contemporaries are a treat worth revisiting, despite the inevitable foreknowledge of Tenório’s tragic fate.
In summary, “They Shot the Piano Player” is a cinematic gem that defies categorization. It artfully blends documentary elements with animation and uses music as a powerful narrative thread. Through its unique visual style and unconventional storytelling, the film pays homage to a musician whose legacy was forever altered by the tumultuous political landscape of 1970s Latin America. It’s a testament to the enduring power of art and music to transcend adversity and capture the essence of an era.