Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal perform a tricky balancing act in their new feature film, celebrating the intoxicating rhythm of bossa nova while also exploring the devastating brutality of state terrorism. It’s a testament to their talent as filmmakers that, for the most part, they manage to pull this off.
They shot the pianist revolves around one kind of ghost: Francisco Tenório Júnior, a leading light of the booming Brazilian music scene of the 1960s and 1970s, who went missing in 1976 while on tour in Buenos Aires. How this keyboard virtuoso, a gentle soul in every sense without a political axe, became one of the desaparecidos target of Argentina’s oppressive regime is the puzzle that drives the film.
They shot the pianist
It comes down to
A loving, compelling tribute.
Structured like a journalist’s search for answers, They shot the pianist combines a fictional framing device with documentary material collected by Trueba over a period of approximately 15 years, all rendered in the same vibrant, hand-drawn animation style that he and Mariscal used in their 2010 romantic musical drama, Chico & Ritaa style defined by thick black outlines and a bold palette.
Trueba’s fictional stand-in, New York music journalist Jeff Harris (voiced by a quiet Jeff Goldblum), is working on a book about the birth and blossoming of bossa nova when a piano solo on a vintage recording catches his attention. The musician is Tenório, whose short life and mysterious death become the focus of Jeff’s investigation, although it takes him a not entirely convincing time to recognize this.
With the vital help of his friend João (Tony Ramos), a well-connected enthusiast in Rio de Janeiro whose ingenuity knows no bounds, Jeff interviews a who’s who of Brazilian musicians. Thirty-nine interviewees appear in the film, most of them musicians and many of them transformative figures in bossa nova, the improvisational offshoot of samba jazz and contemporary iterations. (Belle Epoque (helmer Trueba, both a music producer and filmmaker, spoke to another 80 people whose comments didn’t make it into the film.) More than a few names will be familiar to music fans, including some artistic giants. But with a few exceptions, Jeff’s voiceover doesn’t go out of its way—or interrupt the flow of the story—to explain one’s place in the firmament.
In many ways, Piano player is a simple interview document. There are a few standout moments in Trueba/Jeff’s talking heads, but what’s most impressive is the sheer number and depth of feeling in their comments. Caetano Veloso remembers a train journey with Tenório from São Paul to Rio and speaks with reverence about the pianist’s ‘direct contact with the harmony’. Milton Nascimento offers a change of pace, and the reference that gives the film its title, as he talks about the profound impact on him of the Nouvelle Vague. Jules and Jim, The 400 strokes And Breathless receive short, loving nods in black and white animation.
Reenactments tend to flow more organically in an animated doc than in a live-action documentary, and while Trueba and Mariscal don’t linger on the interviewees’ nostalgic memories of Rio, they bring a few to jewel-bright cartoon life, like then Ella Fitzgerald, in Rio in front of a concert booth, skipped encores so she could run to the Beco das Garrafas (Alley of Bottles) in Copacabana, where the new samba jazz was flourishing in bars and nightclubs.
The interviewees’ comments overlap and could have been less repetitive, especially in the case of comments about the radical newness of bossa nova and Tenório’s talent. When it comes to the events surrounding his disappearance, this replay serves as a kind of confirmation of details in a case that, like so many others, has never been officially solved.
Jeff talks to Tenório’s wife Carmen – who refuses to call herself a widow because his body has not been found – and Malena, the woman he was with in Argentina when he disappeared. The children who were with him only a few years share memories, as do his sister and a cousin. Trueba’s screenplay delves into the devastating effect of Tenório’s disappearance on his parents and, most chillingly, into the memories of the friends and fellow musicians who repeatedly visited Buenos Aires’ hospitals and morgues in the days and weeks after he went missing.
As they say, it was a foreigner’s fault to walk out at two in the morning, as Tenório did, for a sandwich or aspirin, maybe both, at the corner pharmacy. His disappearance in the middle of the night came just days before the coup that ousted Isabel Perón, and there was already a sense of a war zone, another friend recalled.
Back in New York, Jeff and his editor, Jessica (Roberta Wallach), get a mini-lesson over Thai food from journalist John Rowles (Stephen Hughes) about the series of military dictatorships that hit South America in the 1970s and 1980s . , mainly through Operation Condor, a US-backed anti-leftist terror campaign. It is of course also a lesson for the audience, and it is clear that Trueba does not want to push the geopolitical point too hard or fall into lecture mode, but he could perhaps have taken a few more minutes to discuss this crucial aspect of the investigate the issue. story. Using the smallest of contours – and a handy map – the film presents the bigger picture as an eye-opening discovery for Americans Jeff and Jessica, conveying the veil of authoritarian repression and murder that has shaped the modern Western Hemisphere, so not to get the point across. that these events resonate to this day.
It is through the story of Tenório Júnior that the film makes all this palpable rather than simply explaining it. Ultimately, Jeff will gain admission to the Navy Mechanics School, the institution-turned-torture-house where the samba-jazz maestro spent his final days among political prisoners. In the moving words of someone who claims first-hand knowledge of the events, authorities were “convinced that he may have communist leanings based on his appearance and because he was carrying a musicians’ union card.” Face to face with the gruesome history, the fictional journalist and the film itself become somewhat understandably unclear and clumsy.
Against this darkness, the music and the simple, strong images keep the film afloat. In another scene in New York, at the Village Vanguard, a composition by Tenório Júnior is given new life thanks to Jeff and real-life Cuban musician Bebo Valdés. Most poignant is a sequence that animates a 1964 recording session for Tenório’s only album as a bandleader, when he was just 23. As the musicians trade solos, the fauve brilliance of the animation is the perfect match for the exuberant melodic adventure.
By means of They shot the pianistIt is the layer of abstraction that the art of animation offers, a process that is at once distant and imbued with care and affection, that gives this telling of Tenório Júnior’s story its heartbeat. You can celebrate the intoxicating rhythm of bossa nova and also take a look at the devastating brutality of state terrorism. The transitions won’t always be smooth, but why should they be? These are two disparate realms that somehow exist in the same world: beauty and freedom on one side, cruelty and control on the other.