Thursday, March 14, 2024

film review: They Shot The Piano Player


Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal

Written by Fernando Trueba

Review by Allan Tong

ChinoKino score: B+

This is a stunning, but flawed animated docu-drama about legendary Brazilian jazz pianist, Francisco Tenório Jr. who disappeared in 1976 after a gig. He was 34. You probably never heard of him, but Tenório Jr. he played a role in elevating bossa nova to world status in the 1960s and 1970s.

Part detective story and part history lesson about this wonderful music but also the totalitarianism that strangled South America, They Shot The Piano Player is told from the point of view of a writer. New Yorker Jeff Harris is researching a book about boss nova when he stumbles upon Tenório Jr.s' masterful playing and is hooked. He proceeds to interview the pianist's close friends, bandmates and family in and around Rio de Janeiro as well as Buenos Aires where Tenório disappeared. 

These include bossa nova's godfather, João Gilberto, as well as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Vincius de Moraes and Paulo Moura. Their music is liberally heard throughout the film in dazzling, colourful sequences. Pure pleasure. Altogether, they tell the story about boss nova's rise until it broke internationally through in 1964, even challenging the Beatles on the charts.

Harris spends equal time, if not more, learning about the U.S.-backed military regimes which terrorized Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s. Credit the film for not pulling any punches. A harrowing sequence finds Harris touring Buenos Aires' ESMA (Navy Mechanics School), a notorious place in the 1970s where political prisoners (mostly innocent) were tortured and execute. Appalling, ESMA had a ward for pregnant prisoners.

A sequence involving jazz great Ella Fitzgerald is a highlight

Eventually, Harris solves the mystery of Tenório Jr.'s disappearance. The problem is that this moment is not a revelation. The audience has a good idea of what happened long before the ending, which is a key flaw in this film. It lacks suspense. Perhaps the directors got too close to the subject, but the film could have been more powerful after another edit to shuffle scenes and gradually build to this reveal.

Another concern, though not a dealbreaker, is why the filmmakers created the Harris character to tell this story. Was it necessary?

That said, this is a highly enjoyable film of a worthy subject.

They Shot The Piano Player opens March 15 in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City; March 22 in Ottawa, Saskatoon and Victoria; then throughout the spring in other cities.

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