Did Breezy Bossa Nova and Deadly Fascism Collide in ‘They Shot the Piano Player’? A ‘Chico & Rita’-Style Review

“They Shot the Piano Player” is a unique film that combines jazz music and animation to tell a fascinating story. Directed by Fernando Treuba and Javier Mariscal, the film explores the bossa nova movement of the 1960s and the rise of fascist regimes in Latin America during the 1970s. It takes on the form of a documentary, although it incorporates a fictional framing device. What sets this film apart is its completely hand-drawn animation style.

For those who appreciate films that think outside the box, “They Shot the Piano Player” will certainly captivate you. However, it’s worth noting that the film offers more rewarding individual scenes than a strong overall narrative payoff. The movie revolves around the story of Francisco Tenório Júnior, a Brazilian pianist who mysteriously disappeared during a tour in Argentina in 1976. Voiced by Jeff Goldblum, a fictional New Yorker journalist sets out to uncover the truth behind Tenório’s disappearance. Through conversations with Tenório’s loved ones, the journalist explores the personal void left by the musician, the banality of evil, and the greatness of musicianship.

When watching “They Shot the Piano Player” for the first time, viewers may find themselves questioning what is real and what is not. The film utilizes beautifully illustrated scenes that blur the line between fiction and reality. Starting fifteen years ago, Treuba conducted interviews with Tenório’s contemporaries, intending to craft a traditional live-action documentary. However, he later decided to bring the project to life through animation with the help of Mariscal, who he collaborated with on the Oscar-nominated “Chico & Rita” in 2010. The inclusion of a Goldblum-voiced character adds a jazz enthusiast’s perspective, even if it takes some getting used to hearing the actor’s distinctive voice coming from a character that looks nothing like him.

Bossa nova is known for its ability to create an intoxicating atmosphere. The film cleverly uses classic examples of the genre as a backdrop, which has the effect of lulling viewers into a peaceful, easy feeling throughout the movie. This creates an ironic juxtaposition with the interviewees’ discussions of the dread that pervaded the region during the 1970s and the military coups that claimed the lives of individuals like Tenório. Yet, it is this intentional contrast that adds depth to the story, given Treuba’s passion for jazz and his desire to showcase its music.

The film gradually reveals information about Tenório, offering a glimpse into the life of a young, apolitical musician who was snatched off the street at the age of 24. The interviews with approximately 40 real-life subjects provide multiple perspectives, although at times, they may become repetitive. Nevertheless, the visually captivating animation style compensates for any repetitive moments. Mariscal’s use of vivid, almost DayGlo colors brings locations from New York to Rio to Buenos Aires to life. The colorful palette lends an engaging quality even to the talking-head interviews, which could have been monotonous in a live-action format.

One of the film’s standout scenes is the re-creation of Tenório’s only recording session as a band leader in 1964. Through animation, Mariscal and Treuba capture the essence of the instrumental jam, transforming it into a piece of vibrant musical cinema. This scene demonstrates the potential for an entire film dedicated to animated jazz sequences. The methods used to “shoot” the performances of Tenório and his contemporaries add another layer of excitement to the film, making it worth a second or even third viewing.

“They Shot the Piano Player” is a testament to the power of jazz music and its ability to transcend time and place. By blending this genre with animation, the film creates a captivating and thought-provoking experience. Whether you are a jazz lover or simply appreciate innovative storytelling, this film is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Share this article: