Film Review: Chico & Rita

Chico & Rita

Directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando

Screenplay  by Fernando Trueba, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón

Music by Bebo Valdés

By Fernando Gonzalez

“Chico y Rita” has been presented at several film festivals but does not yet have commercial distribution. It is being reviewed here for its evocation of a significant period in jazz and Latin music.

For more information about screenings and festival bookings, click HERE.

Chico & Rita, the animated feature film by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando that opened the 28th Miami International Film Festival Friday night,  follows the romantic story of the title characters. But Chico & Rita is really about the love affair between Trueba & Co. with Latin jazz and the Havana and New York of the 1940s and ‘50s.

The fictional tale of pianist Chico Valdés and singer Rita LaBelle is part Hollywood pulp melodrama, part telenovela. It’s  a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story that plays out over several decades and a number of cities, as chance and dastardly deeds separate them. Will love triumph at the end? You get the idea.

But the story of Chico and Rita is actually both the subject and the pretext for a lush, visually stunning, and musically charming recreation of an era.

The film is a collaboration between: Trueba, an Oscar  winner who directed Calle 54, a valentine to Latin Jazz, and has also become, in recent years, a jazz record producer; Mariscal, a visual artist and designer; and animator Tono Errando.  Cuban pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdés, 92, who once actually sat at the piano and led the orchestra at the Tropicana Club in Havana, wrote the music score and plays on the soundtrack. The film is dedicated to him.

In Chico & Rita, the creators have  evoked a pre-Revolution, neon-lit Havana so effectively that there were murmurs of recognition among the audience in Miami, as many were no doubt taken back by images of longed-for places and old store signs.  So, too, for the scenes of New York City’s legendary music joints and larger-than-life musicians making jazz history every night.

Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Chano Pozo, Ben Webster, Nat “King” Cole, and Tito Puente are some of the artists whose images have cameo appearances throughout the film.  Their instrumentals are played on the soundtrack by a first rate cast of musicians including Jimmy Heath (Webster), Michael Philip Mossman (Gillespie), Irakere’s Germán Velazco (Parker) and Freddy Cole (Nat King Cole). Flamenco star singer Estrella Morente plays herself. Valdés plays piano for his screen counterpart, and Rita is sung by Cuban singer Idania Valdés (no relation to Bebo).

There are many musical references throughout the film that will make jazz and Latin jazz lovers nod and smile in recognition: Monk sitting in at a jam; Tito Puente at the Palladium;  Chico idling at the piano and slyly paying tribute to bebop (and Bud Powell?). There is also the tragic story of Chano Pozo´s killing, allusions to Wim Wenders and the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, and the Latin GRAMMY-winning Lágrimas Negras, an improbable worldwide hit in 2004 by Valdés and flamenco singer Diego El Cigala.

The drawings, the animation and, especially, the music are so delightful, that it feels petty to object to some choices in the setup and the telling of the story, or point to the odd mistake (e.g. Parker, an alto sax player heard playing an alto, is drawn with a tenor).

The bottom line is that the music and the images in Chico & Rita will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten the particulars of their tale.

(Note that this is an animated film for adults that includes nudity and sex scenes that make it not suitable for children.)

To read more reviews and posts by Fernando Gonzalez, click HERE.

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