Credit: Javier Mariscal
by Nick Kouhi Featured Film

They Shot the Piano Player — Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal

November 21, 2023

The legacy of a venerated musician comprises the myriad testimonies in They Shot the Piano Player. Colleagues and family of Francisco Tenório Júnior share personal memories of a nearly forgotten figurehead in the Bossa Nova scene whose meteoric rise was brutally curtailed by his disappearance in 1976. The tragic intrigue of Tenório’s story is regaled through animation, an effective device in many a docudrama in the new millennium, yet one which can’t distract from other creative decisions made by the filmmakers. Chief among these liberties is foregrounding a fictional journalist as the audience surrogate. Jeff Harris (Jeff Goldblum) recounts, to a rapt audience at The Strand, the saga of uncovering Tenório’s identity after serendipitously stumbling upon his discography. His journey takes him across South America, from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires, the latter the site of Tenório’s disappearance. Harris is the Jerry Thompson to Tenório’s Charles Foster Kane, piecing together disparate accounts to form a portrait of a charismatic, 20th-century iconoclast.

But William Alland’s nondescript anonymity is hardly synonymous with Goldblum’s recognizably arrhythmic cadence, a distraction which only accentuates Harris’ monotonous function in expressing slack-jawed indignation toward the dark history of military dictatorships in the region. Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal emphasize the psychic toll that life under these repressive regimes had on their interview subjects, who frequently describe Tenório as an apolitical artist merely looking the part of a bedraggled communist. Yet for all their poignancy, these testimonials are inadequately contextualized within their expansive geopolitical milieu by Trueba’s script. Indeed, the directorial duo adopts the narrative of artmaking as a process burdened, rather than enriched, by political consciousness. The cross-pollination between Bossa Nova musicians and the European and American media of the late 1950s bolsters a romanticized historiography, one that includes a first-time viewing of Jules and Jim sending Milton Nascimento into a creative frenzy. If the seasoned aesthetes of mid-century pop culture aren’t beguiled by now, the explicit evocation of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in the film’s English title should dispel any ambiguity over the intended key demographic. Adherents to Godard’s radical period should just be grateful there’s a fleeting reference to Breathless.

While it comes short of surveying the political nuances of its cosmopolitan milieu, They Shot the Piano Player admittedly gets some mileage from nostalgic spectacle. As in their previous project Chico and Rita, Mariscal and Trueba most thrillingly mine this vein with a bold palette that vivifies the past as a living memory for its caretakers, even as the animation’s movement remains quaintly rudimentary. There’s a coequal thrill in hearing a recording of “Embalo” awash in primary colors and seeing those same musicians, cast in the more detailed shadows of the present, play an intimate elegy for their lost friend. The affection both filmmakers hold for Bossa Nova’s pioneers yields some powerful gestures as some of Tenório’s closest friends and family struggle to articulate his absence; their words illustrate distinct attempts to collectively continue living in the wake of the military dictatorship. “I remember the movement of the house more than I remember him,” Elisa, one of Tenório’s adult children, remarks. It’s a poetically plainspoken observation that most trenchantly encapsulates the film’s urgent ambition to probe the paradox of living with the memory of ghosts. As their mother Carmen observes, she was never registered as a widow since her husband’s body was, after all, never officially recovered.

The cold bureaucracy of these state-sanctioned categorizations remains sadly relevant. Yet far too much of They Shot the Piano Player is spent having its guiding characters bluntly telegraph the emotional reaction expected of the audience. Trueba and Mariscal are banking on the nostalgia of American baby boomers weaned on Bossa Nova to educate them on an occluded tragedy. It’s a gamble whose earnest motives can only mask the inelegant bum notes played too often.

DIRECTOR: Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal;  CAST: (voices) Jeff Goldblum, João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso;  DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures Classics;  IN THEATERS: November 24;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 43 min.

Originally published as part of DOC NYC 2023 — Dispatch 1.