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‘They Shot the Piano Player’ Review: A Deeply Felt Portrait of a Virtuoso Who Wandered Into the Crosshairs of a Police State

Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal tackle a tricky balancing act in their new feature, celebrating the intoxicating lilt of the bossa nova and also investigating the devastating brutality of state terrorism. It’s a testament to their talent as filmmakers that, for the most part, they manage to pull it off.

They Shot the Piano Player centers on a kind of ghost: Francisco Tenório Júnior, a leading light of the thriving Brazilian music scene of the 1960s and ’70s who went missing in 1976, while on tour in Buenos Aires. How this keyboard virtuoso, by all accounts a gentle soul with no political ax to grind, became one of the desaparecidos targeted by Argentina’s oppressive regime is the puzzle that drives the movie.

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Structured as a journalist’s search for answers, They Shot the Piano Player combines a fictional framing device with documentary material gathered by Trueba over a period of about 15 years, all of it transmuted through the same vibrant hand-drawn animation style that he and Mariscal used in their 2010 romantic musical drama, Chico & Rita, a style defined by thick black outlines and a bold palette.

Trueba’s fictional stand-in, New York music journalist Jeff Harris (voiced by a low-key Jeff Goldblum), is working on a book about the birth and blossoming of bossa nova when a piano solo on a vintage recording captures his attention. The musician is Tenório, whose short life and mysterious death become the focus of Jeff’s research, though it takes him a not-quite-convincing while to recognize this.

With indispensable help from his friend João (Tony Ramos), a well-connected aficionado in Rio de Janeiro whose resourcefulness knows no end, Jeff interviews a who’s who of Brazilian musicians. Thirty-nine interviewees appear in the film, most of them musicians and many of them transformative figures in bossa nova, its improvisational offshoot samba-jazz and contemporary iterations. (Belle Epoque helmer Trueba, a music producer as well as a filmmaker, spoke with another 80 people whose comments didn’t make it into the movie.) More than a few names will be familiar to music fans, some of them artistic giants, some of them now deceased. But with a few exceptions, Jeff’s voiceover narration doesn’t go out of its way — or interrupt the narrative flow — to explain anyone’s place in the firmament.

In many ways, Piano Player is a straightforward interview doc. There are a few striking moments from Trueba’s/Jeff’s talking heads, but mainly what impresses is the sheer number of them and the depth of feeling in their comments. Caetano Veloso recalls a train trip with Tenório from São Paul to Rio and speaks with reverence of the pianist’s “direct contact with the harmony.” Milton Nascimento offers a change of topical pace, and the reference that gives the film its title, when he talks about the profound effect on him of the Nouvelle Vague. Jules and Jim, The 400 Blows and Breathless receive brief, loving nods in black-and-white animation.

Reenactments tend to flow more organically in an animated doc than a live-action one, and while Trueba and Mariscal don’t linger on interviewees’ nostalgic memories of Rio, they bring a few to jewel-bright cartoon life, as when Ella Fitzgerald, in Rio for a stand of concerts, skipped encores so she could dash to the Beco das Garrafas (Alley of Bottles) in Copacabana, where the new samba-jazz was flourishing in bars and nightclubs.

The interviewees’ comments overlap and could have been less repetitive, particularly in the case of comments about the radical newness of bossa nova and Tenório’s talent. When it comes to the events surrounding his disappearance, this repetition serves as a kind of corroboration of details in a case that, like so many others, has never officially been resolved.

Jeff talks with Tenório’s wife, Carmen — who refuses to call herself a widow given that his body wasn’t found — and Malena, the woman he was with in Argentina when he disappeared. The children who had only a few years with him offer reminiscences, as do his sister and a cousin. Trueba’s screenplay delves into the devastating effect of Tenório’s disappearance on his parents and, most chillingly, the recollections of the friends and fellow musicians who repeatedly visited Buenos Aires’ hospitals and morgues in the days and weeks after he went missing.

As one puts it, it was a foreigner’s mistake to wander outside at 2 a.m., as Tenório did, for a sandwich or aspirin, maybe both, from the corner pharmacy. His middle-of-the-night disappearance took place days before the coup that ousted Isabel Perón, and there was already the feeling of a war zone, another friend recalls.

Back in New York, over Thai food, Jeff and his editor, Jessica (Roberta Wallach), receive a mini-lesson from journalist John Rowles (Stephen Hughes) on the string of military dictatorships that hit South America in the ’70s and ’80s, mainly through Operation Condor, a U.S.-backed anti-leftist campaign of terror. It’s a lesson for the audience, too, of course, and it’s clear that Trueba doesn’t want to press the geopolitical point too hard or lapse into lecture mode, but he might have taken a few more minutes to explore this crucial aspect of the story. Using the barest of outlines — and a handy map — the movie presents the larger picture as an eye-opening discovery for Americans Jeff and Jessica, conveying the pall of authoritarian repression and murder that shaped the modern Western Hemisphere, if not driving home the point that these events reverberate to this day.

It’s through the story of Tenório Júnior that the movie makes all this felt rather than simply explained. Eventually Jeff will be provided access to the Navy Mechanics School, the institute turned house of torture where the samba-jazz maestro spent his final days among political prisoners. In the haunting words of one person who claims to have firsthand knowledge of the events, the authorities were “convinced that he would have communist tendencies based on his appearance and because he had a musician’s union card on him.” Face-to-face with horrendous history, the fictional journalist and the film itself become somewhat understandably inarticulate and fumbling.

Against such darkness, the music and the simple, strong visuals keep the movie afloat. In another New York scene, at the Village Vanguard, one of Tenório Júnior’s compositions breathes with new life thanks to Jeff and the real-life Cuban musician Bebo Valdés. Most transporting is a sequence that animates a 1964 recording session for Tenório’s sole album as a bandleader, when he was only 23. As the musicians trade solos, the fauve brilliance of the animation is the perfect match for the exultant melodic adventure.

Throughout They Shot the Piano Player, it’s the layer of abstraction that the art of animation provides, a process at once distancing and infused with care and affection, that gives this telling of Tenório Júnior’s story its pulse. You can celebrate the intoxicating lilt of the bossa nova and also peer into the devastating brutality of state terrorism. The transitions won’t always be smooth, but why should they be? These are two disparate planes that somehow exist in the same world, on one side beauty and freedom, on the other cruelty and control.

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