They Shot the Piano Player Review: A Colorful History Lesson about Brazilian Music

By   |   February 21, 2024   |   Entertainment

There’s a chilling interview in They Shot the Piano Player. It’s when a journalist (voiced by Stephen Hughes) maps the spread of totalitarian governments sweeping Latin America (linked to U.S. military interference). It’s overwhelming imagery and so casually delivered to convey the scale of political instability, inseparable from the music movements of the milieu. 

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal (both directors of the Academy Award nominee Chico and Rita), the docudrama They Shot the Piano Player vibrates with the colors of the bossa nova years. Every interview surrounds a tragic history: the disappearance of Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior in 1976. The sweet sounds of João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Vinicius de Moraes and Paulo Moura reverberate throughout the docudrama. It’s a sumptuous film where color nearly bleeds from the lines. It’s resplendent whenever you pause the film. 

The stylized realism (even if choppy) is admirable, but there’s an argument that it’s too restrained for the energy of its bossa nova subject matter. Though stylistic, the film hasn’t found justification for animating the grounded talking-head sequences.

The weakest part is, sadly, Jeff Goldblum (ironic, given that he himself is a jazz pianist), who, in my opinion, is dull as a narrator. He consistently seems to occupy too much space. It’s telling that Goldblum’s strongest performance is not the droning voiceovers but the delicate moments when he utters under his breath when reacting to the stories of atrocities. Those beats hit as a natural human reaction. Otherwise, the film might over-rely on his narration to fill in the blanks.

But whenever the animation is allowed to freewheel, illustrating the electric movements of Brazil’s music scenes, then the movie is allowed to shine and dance.

They Shot the Piano Player plays a worthy tune. But personally, I prefer Chico and Rita.

The movie opens on February 23.

photo credits: Sony Pictures Classics

 

 

Filed Under: Entertainment
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