THE STORY – A New York City journalist embarks on an adventure to discover the reasons for the disappearance of a young Brazilian piano virtuoso.
THE CAST – Jeff Goldblum
THE TEAM – Fernando Trueba (Director/Writer) & Javier Mariscal (Director)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
The exploration of the ways in which pop culture events and figures can weave their way into the broader political landscape is a fascinating venture to examine. There’s an inherent power to creative artists’ impact on the general populace. It’s an invigorating force that can speak to the necessity of the times as much as it can provide a mental respite from the unending conflicts on display. Art is hardly ever resistant to societal influence, and such participants carry a compelling perspective of their own. This identity is at the heart of “They Shot The Piano Player,” an intriguing analysis of the collision between artistry and governmental oppression that struggles to engage as much as it illuminates.
The film sets its sights on an odyssey of discovery, where music journalist Jeff Harris (Jeff Goldblum) sets out to uncover what led to the mysterious disappearance of Francisco Tenório Jr. Tenório was a celebrated jazz musician who burst into notoriety as the bossa nova movement was gaining popularity, and his undeniable talent was noted in the Brazilian music scene beginning in the 1960s. However, he vanished in 1976 while living in Argentina, and the circumstances concerning his whereabouts were unknown. During Harris’s investigation, important figures of the time are interviewed and shed light on the many talented artists. This also highlights the dangerous environment that existed as brutal dictatorships were blossoming. It’s a tale that seeks to answer specific questions but also relishes in the creativity that introduced an innovative soundscape to the rest of the world.
The aspect that one can most appreciate about this piece is its celebration of music. There is a genuine passion on display for what this movement inspired. What’s created is an exciting aura of musicality that dives into the past to analyze this bold crusade, which can be captivating. As the film’s fictional journalist makes his way through uncovering secrets of the past, the audience is treated with interview subjects that shed light on the actual participants of that era. It becomes an engrossing history lesson to dissect, all set to a colorful soundtrack that immediately envelopes one in an enthralling atmosphere. The animation itself is of a similar style to that of the Oscar-nominated “Chico & Rita,” also from directors Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba. The imagery does not carry the same fluidity as the former work, but there is an enchanting quality it still manages to possess.
However, the film ultimately does struggle to keep its narrative wholly absorbing throughout. While many facets of said history lesson are alluring, the structure that assembles these story elements often feels disparate and scattered. The perspective that switches from investigative journalism to traditional documentary interview setups never quite fits well when juxtaposed against each other. The throughline ends up becoming fractured and has trouble maintaining a natural flow. There are particular places in time the plot has a keen interest to focus on but does not craft an organic momentum of examination. Many of these issues are also weighed down by Goldblum’s vocal performance. His trademark cadence never fits the tone of this character, instead being a distracting presence that immediately rips out of full immersion.
The tale being spun in “They Shot The Piano Player” aims to comment on the dichotomy artists face in a cruel and suffocating climate. The rule of inhumane dictators that sprouted throughout Latin America was indeed a contributing factor to Tenório’s disappearance, as well as the suppression of so many voices. Yet, that thesis can be cluttered in its presentation within this piece. No doubt a riveting story exists to explore the crossroads of art and politics, but the construction of this narrative rarely maintains a natural momentum. Despite easily becoming taken with the vibrant music, a more engaging story remains elusive.