‘They Shot the Piano Player’ Review: When Breezy Bossa Nova Met Deadly Fascism, Told ‘Chico & Rita’-Style

Jazz and animation make for strong bedfellows in “They Shot the Piano Player,” a film from Spanish directors Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal that represents an intriguing hybrid in all sorts of ways. It’s a love letter to the bossa nova movement that peaked in the 1960s, while at the same time it’s a sobering procedural that looks into the state murder of a musician that occurred as fascistic regimes rose to power in Latin America in the ’70s. It’s a documentary, or at least more nonfiction than not, although it has a wholly concocted framing device. And above and beyond the movie’s somewhat incongruous mixture of gritty political realism and giddy music appreciation, yes, it’s completely hand-drawn.

So if you like movies that draw outside the lines, so to speak, then “They Shot the Piano Player” will be for you, even if it offers greater rewards on a scene-by-scene basis than it does with any strong payoff to a narrative buildup. The figure at the center of the film is a long-gone Brazilian pianist, Francisco Tenório Júnior, who’s maintained a strong cult following in jazz and samba circles since abruptly disappearing — or being “disappeared” — on tour in Argentina in 1976.

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The movie gives us a fictional New Yorker journalist, voice-acted by Jeff Goldblum, who at first is pursuing a general retrospective piece on bossa nova, then shifts his focus to finding out the truth about what happened to Tenório, who was generally assumed to have been abducted and killed by paramilitary forces during his tour stopover. There is a truth eventually revealed about the pianist’s fate, but there’s no big shock or twist to it, so the spine of the movie is the conversations the Goldblum character has with Tenório’s widow, children, mistress and bandmates about the personal void he left, the banality of sanctioned evil and the glories of great musicianship.

Anyone coming in completely cold to “They Shot the Piano Player” may find themselves with their own mystery to solve: what’s real and what’s not, amid these beautifully florid illustrations of clearly vérité-sounding monologues. The answer is that, starting about 15 years ago, Trueba began conducting interviews with Tenório’s contemporaries and survivors, with the intent, apparently, of someday assembling a traditional live-action documentary, before having a eureka moment about taking it into the realm of animation with the help of Mariscal. They have previous shared history in that realm, having been Oscar-nominated for 2010’s “Chico & Rita.” (Trueba has a previous solo Oscar win to his credit, for best foreign film in 1992 for “Belle Epoque.”) In going that route, Trueba also invented the Goldblum character, rather than having himself animated as the central investigative figure. Goldblum obviously brings a strong co-sign to the project, as a jazz nut, although it’s a little tough getting used to the actor’s distinctive voice coming out of a character that is drawn to look nothing like him.

There may be no subgenre of music quite as exclusively devoted to releasing pheromones as bossa nova. So the fact that “They Shot the Piano Player” is wallpapered with classic examples of the stuff has the strange effect of lulling you into a kind of peaceful, easy feeling for virtually the entire length of the movie, even as its interviewees are recalling the pervasive dread in the region in the ’70s or discussing the military coups that claimed Tenório as one of thousands of never officially reported victims. It’s an ironic juxtaposition that feels mostly intentional, but unavoidable anyway, given just how much of a jazz lover Trueba is (he’s actually a music producer, in his non-directorial hours), and how much of that fabulous music he wanted to pack in.

The dribbling out of information about Tenório, who was a young, apolitical man of only 24 when he was snatched off the street nearly a half-century ago, comes slowly and sometimes repetitively, as the movie’s roughly 40 real-life interview subjects tend to repeat some of the same general impressions. Yet it never stops being visually captivating, even if the slightly jerky style of illustration may at first vex viewers who are used to seeing completely smooth transitions from frame to frame. Locations from New York to Rio to Buenos Aires come alive in Mariscal’s vivid, almost DayGlo color schemes, and even the talking-heads interviews, which could have grown monotonous if Trueba had gone with his original live-action plan, are kind of casually mesmerizing, subject to this palette.

One of the movie’s best scenes is a re-creation of the 1964 recording session that ended up being the only one Tenório ever did as a band leader, as opposed to a sideman to more famous names. Watching what Mariscal and Trueba have done to turn that extended instrumental jam into a piece of real musical cinema, full of garish-yet-cool yellows and blues, you might wish they would do an entire film of nothing but animated jazz sequences. As it is, the methods they’ve used to “shoot” the performances of the late subject and his contemporaries have a kick that feels worthy of a second or third viewing, even if Tenório’s fate is all too foreordained on the first.

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