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They Shot the Piano Player

Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba, who co-directed “They Shot the Piano Player,” first encountered the work of the film’s subject, Brazilian keyboardist Francisco Tenorio Júnior, in a record store twenty years ago. Trueba was so enraptured by the music that he looked Tenorio up online to see what else he’d done, and was horrified to learn that he hadn’t done anything in nearly thirty years because he vanished in 1976 while on tour in Buenos Aires after briefly leaving his hotel to get sandwiches. Given the specifics of the time and place, viewers won’t be stunned to learn that Tenorio was likely “disappeared” (the verb version of that word) by the authoritarian government of Argentina, perhaps not for any specific thing he did or said (he was a gigging musician, not a public-facing activist) but because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time (one theory about his fate is that that he violated a curfew he didn’t know about). 

Trueba has said in interviews that he didn’t instantly settle on animation as the movie’s format, but gravitated toward it after working on the 2010 animated romantic drama “Chico and Rita” with artist Javier Marsical, his collaborator on many projects (including record albums; Trueba, who did the great Latin jazz documentary “Calle 54,” is also a music producer). There wasn’t much in the way of photos or motion picture footage to tell Tenorio’s story, and Trueba didn’t want the movie to be two hours of people sitting in chairs. He wanted to be able to envision Tenorio playing music and living his life. The result is a lavishly colorful, widescreen-format, animated hybrid of the music documentary, the political primer, and the "Citizen Kane"-like biography with a journalist figure as guide. 

The latter aspect is where the film falls short—or perhaps one should say that it limits itself. Jeff Goldblum, who happens to be an absolute beast of a jazz pianist on top of his acting, plays an invented New Yorker writer from Brooklyn named Jeff Harris who tells a book-signing audience about how he found out about Tenorio while writing a book on bossa nova music and ended up traveling through Latin America interviewing family, friends, colleagues and music experts about the pianist’s life, work, and disappearance. It’s easy to imagine a more straightforward “documentary” version being assembled from the same basic materials—including twenty years’ worth of interviews by Trueba with people talking about Tenorio, the music scene in Latin America in the ‘70s, the rise of authoritarianism, the terroristic tactic of “disappearing” people, and other relevant subjects—without the Jeff Harris character. (It seems that in some cases, Trueba has replaced audio of himself asking questions and responding to interviewees with Goldblum.)

That having been said, Goldblum’s vocal performance is naturalistic and witty (he talks like a jazz pianist plays, never articulating the melody in quite the way you expect). And the conceit of having an “interviewer” who is essentially a stand-in for Trueba lets the story hop amongst many different types of personal spaces as it might in a regular documentary. Trueba and Marsical fill every frame with massive amounts of information. You’ll enjoy letting your eye roam around the backgrounds and notice certain books, posters, photos, paintings, and stray bits of action that had to be drawn just like everything else in the movie but feel somehow “caught on camera” (such as a dog briefly glimpsed through the open doorway of a bar, or a man in the background of an outdoor plaza taking a piece of fruit from a stand). It’s a kick to see the same journalistic approach to characterization applied in an animated setting: letting the accumulated details tell you who a person is.

The film is most affecting when it explores the impact of Tenorio’s disappearance on his family. Tenorio’s children, now in their 50s, share limited memories of having him around the house. We are reminded that Tenorio’s grandchildren never got to know him at all. As more than one interviewee points out, “disappearing” a person leaves their fate in limbo and inflicts a different sort of distress than other atrocities. The refusal to provide answers or even verify that something happened is the ultimate assertion of state authority over citizens. It’s an escalation of the kinds of power trips envisioned in moments where the film’s interviewees recount how the secret police in Argentina used to intimidate people by barging into their homes unannounced to point guns and casually destroy their possessions, with or without charges being threatened or arrests being made. We hear the dread of such events described as a collective experience in a scene where an interviewee talks about the strangeness of going about one’s daily business knowing that they and anyone they know could get swept up and erased.

Throughout, the visuals are simple but never simplistic, and they go a long way towards turning a fundamentally sad story into a vibrant trip into a fertile period for pop music and the arts generally. The movie is stimulating both as a visceral event packed with color and music and as a learning experience that keeps making unexpected connections and trying to get you to think about what you’re seeing as something more than information. At one point, Trueba and Marsical even assert that the international rise of bossa nova music was a defining event in 20th century arts on par with the French New Wave film movement. The claim is never really explored or defended, but it sticks in the mind as a provocation. Cinema history buffs will appreciate the extravagantly unnecessary but marvelous animated “behind the scenes” footage depicting the shooting of famous scenes from Jean-Luc Godard's “Breathless” and Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows” (this film’s title is an allusion to another Truffaut classic), as well as loving renderings of American music stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, who helped popularize bossa nova greats like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Gilberto Gil.

Over the years, Trueba has quietly, steadily built one of the most stylistically diverse filmographies in world cinema. This is another terrific entry. Try to see it on a big screen if you can. And if you can't, be sure to play it loud.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Film Credits

They Shot the Piano Player movie poster

They Shot the Piano Player (2024)

104 minutes

Cast

Jeff Goldblum as Jeff Harris (voice)

Director

Screenplay

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