During the 1950s, three then unknown Brazilian musicians – Joao Gilberto, Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes – recorded Chega de Saudade, the first Bossa Nova song. They immediately catapulted the genre to international fame, drawing the attention of artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz. Tenorio Junior was an independent pianist and composer wbo routinely toured with de Moraes, whoever kept a low profile. The largest country of South America was experiencing a cultural revolution, supported by a succession of progressive governments. Then came the military coup of 1964, and many prominent artists had to flee into exile. A string of such events toppled the majority of democratically-elected governments of Latin America, always with the tacit and yet very active support of the CIA, in what became known as Operation Condor.
Spanish filmmakers Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba retrace the rise the fame and the last moments in the life of Junior, who went missing in 1976 in Argentina during a musical tour. He was kidnapped as he popped out of his hotel (presumably in order to buy food or cigarettes) in the middle of the night. The gruesome details of the action that ensued are disclosed in the second half of this 104-minute documentary. At the helm of the investigation is a fictitious New York reporter called Jeff (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), who is determined to established what happened to the relatively obscure, shy and seemingly apolitical artist, who some hailed as “the greatest pianist Brazil has ever seen”. Junior’s friend Joao (voiced by Brazilian superstar Tony Star) lends Jeff a helping hand, taking him to some of the emblematic corners or Rio, where Bossa was born. There are testimonials from Brazilian music grandees Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento, as well as lengthy interaction with Bossa Nova musicians Toquinho, Murtinho and the late Joao Donato (all voiced by the artists themselves; Donato passed away just two months ago). Interaction with Jobim, de Moraes and (Joao) Gilberto is a little trickier because these people died a long time ago, the directors having to resort to archive interviews instead.
Those expecting a tour of Brazilian music are in for a disappointment. The film instead focuses almost exclusively on the personal life of Junior, his family and friends, the nuts and bolts of the oppressive dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 21 years, and its connections to other such regimes in other parts of the continent. The allegiance of Jeff is brought into question, and he promptly admits to his country’s destructive role of the US in Latin American politics. We see large chunks of a map of Latin America turn black as Uncle Sam topples left-leaning leaders and democracies in order to install deeply reactionary regimes that would claims hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1960s and 1970s.
From a narrative perspective, They Shot the Piano Player is structured like a very conventional investigative documentary. Talking heads interviews are blended with archive footage and reenactments in order to create a coherent story, as well as a tribute to an artist gone-too-soon. The difference is that instead of real images we see something akin to rotoscopic animation (whereby real images are converted into realistic animation), mixed with imagined drawings (because there is no real footage of some events, such as Junior’s kidnapping). This is done very smoothly, and it is often difficult to distinguish the two techniques. On the other hand, this is at odds with the conventional storytelling. The strict narrative arc emasculates the creative freedom. In other words, I wish the directors had injected the movie with more lyrical devices instead of creating such a straightforward investigate documentary (with some strategic elements of fiction thrown in). Still, a peculiar piece of filmmaking worthy of praise as well as an attentive viewing.
They Shot Piano Player premiered as part of the main selection of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival (out of competition), when this piece was originally written. Out in the UK in October as part of the BFI London Film Festival.