Taking a cue from the genre-melding impulse of the music at its heart, They Shot the Piano Player initially gives every appearance of being pure fiction. The plot of this animated film by Spanish directors Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba follows Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), a journalist from New York City who’s been commissioned to write a book on bossa nova. Immersing himself in the music in preparation for a trip to Rio de Janeiro, he hears a solo by Brazilian jazz pianist Francisco Tenorio Jr. and gets sidetracked. The innovator of samba jazz, it turns out, disappeared under suspicious circumstances in Buenos Aires just before the 1976 military coup, and Jeff decides to fill in the blanks.
The setup, then, has all the trappings of a detective story, with an amateur sleuth in obsessive pursuit of an unsolved mystery. In Rio, Jeff’s friend João (Tony Ramos) puts him in touch with local musicians, all of whom have some connection with Tenorio. It’s at this point that the documentary aspect of this docudrama becomes obvious, as the interviewees are a veritable who’s who of Brazilian and Argentine music: Vinícius de Moraes, Chico Barque, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, João Gilberto, and Milton Nascimento, among others.
Everyone knows, collaborates with, and takes inspiration from one other. Following the thread of their testimony from Rio to Buenos Aires and back, Jeff pieces together the story of Tenorio’s life—in many ways a microcosm not only of Latin American music in the ’60s and ’70s, but also the crushing of everything it promised, as country after country succumbed to right-wing coups.
The film pulls off a sleight of hand that places a fictional character across from real, albeit larger-than-life, interlocuters. The illusion falters, though, whenever Jeff resorts to perfunctory, muttered responses to their statements, or interrupts with voiceover narration to summarize moments of the conversation that clearly couldn’t have taken place. It’s not hard to overlook this lack of seamlessness, since the animation is more than just a device for fusing reality and fiction.
Rough and ready, the animation has a jazzy style throughout, emphasizing color palette over smoothness or precision. Slabs of color, escaping their outlines, clash against each other with the stridency of cymbals or the jagged interplay of forms in a Stuart Davis painting. Economizing on the number of animated frames, the film evokes the experience of reading a graphic novel, relying on the viewer to elide the gaps. In the interview sections which make up the majority of the runtime, rotoscoping captures nuances of expression, though it also threatens at times to give the film an impersonal, A.I.-generated look.
Unlike, say, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, which takes advantage of rotoscoping to lend a unique style to the animation depending on who’s talking and about what, They Shot the Piano Player aims for more stylistic continuity than one would expect, given the free-wheeling soundtrack. That said, the animation gives the filmmakers greater leeway than live action would to pepper the mise-en-scène with Easter eggs celebrating Latin American culture, like Tarsila do Amaral’s painting Abaporu (credited as the impetus for Oswald de Andrade’s modernist Manifesto Antropófago), a poster for Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil, and a copy of Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar in a Buenos Aires bookstore.
In certain respects, They Shot the Piano Player demonstrates Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia’s theory of “paranoid fiction,” which implodes the detective genre by withholding definitive solutions to crimes, instead diffusing suspicion like a gas so that it attaches not to any single murderer, but to a murderous structuration of society. True, Mariscal and Trueba’s film adopts one explanation for Tenorio’s murder. But it barely mentions Alfredo Astiz, the person speculated to have pulled the trigger, lingering instead on a guided tour through the murder’s probable site—the attic of the infamous Navy School of Mechanics.
As such, Mariscal and Trueba implicate global counterrevolution, the instigators of which remain too many and too powerful to simply arrest, as they would be in straight-ahead crime fiction. Through Tenorio’s story, They Shot the Piano Player organically widens the frame from one individual tragedy to a denunciation of Operation Condor and U.S. meddling in Latin American politics. At the same time, Tenorio’s friends, family, and fellow artists tell the story of a music which, in spite of systematic violence, will continue to outlive any force determined to stamp it out, or the spirit of liberation to which it gives sensible form.
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