They Shot the Piano Player Review

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Summary

  • Stunning animation highlights the vibrant world of samba jazz and the tragic disappearance of Francisco Tenório Júnior.
  • Trueba and Mariscal misstep with the addition of a distracting fictional journalist, Jeff Harris, in an otherwise compelling narrative.
  • The film sheds light on the political turmoil of Argentina’s military junta and the atrocities committed during the “Dirty War” era.



They Shot the Piano Player is a fictional, animated docudrama about the tragic disappearance of Francisco Tenório Júnior. The virtuoso Brazilian pianist was instrumental in popularizing samba jazz, specifically bossa nova and its alternating beat structure, which became a late 50s and 60s global phenomenon. Tenório Jr. vanished the night of March 18, 1976, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after leaving his hotel to run an errand. Spanish filmmakers Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal chronicle his musical legacy and murder at the hands of complicit dictatorial regimes. Their methodology is undoubtedly creative despite a flawed approach. At best, they shine a glaring spotlight on decades of government-sanctioned brutality to a swinging soundtrack.


Trueba and Mariscal introduce Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), an American journalist, at a 2009 reading in New York City’s famed Strand bookstore. His publisher (Roberta Wallach) notes how she hired him to write a book about jazz, but that focus changed once he became enthralled with the mystery surrounding Tenório Jr. Harris recounts listening to the sublime piano accompaniments on seminal Brazilian bossa nova albums. Who was the genius playing with legendary artists Vinicius de Moraes, Beto Guedes, Wanda Sá, and Edu Lobo?

Harris flies to Rio de Janeiro for his first meeting with João (Tony Ramos), a local musician and reporter with intricate knowledge of samba’s development. João regales with fascinating stories of the vibrant nightlight that spawned an artistic revolution. Tenório Jr. was widely considered to be the best Brazilian jazz pianist. Shy, glasses-wearing, and bearded, Tenório Jr. was a mainstay of the burgeoning bossa nova scene. Everyone loved and adored him. Tenório Jr. was married to Carmen Magalhäes. They had four small children and were always broke.



Francisco Tenório Júnior: A Virtuoso Pianist

They Shot the Piano Player

They Shot the Piano Player

2.5/5

Release Date
February 23, 2023

Director
Fernando Trueba , Javier Mariscal

Runtime
103 min

Pros

  • They Shot the Piano Player is a visually gorgeous film with great music.
  • Shines a light on an important political moment.
Cons

  • The narrative framing is sloppy and distracting. Adding Jeff Goldblum as a fictional journalist was a big mistake.

João’s voice lowers to a whisper as he introduces a salacious detail. Tenório Jr. was with his mistress, Malena Barretto, at the Hotel Normandie in Buenos Aires. He left that night after a concert to get her medicine and never returned. No one had spoken to Malena for decades. He didn’t even know if Tenório Jr.’s wife knew he was with another woman. Harris vows to find Malena and get her untold story. He embarks on a winding journey through music, politics, and societal repression to a devastating conclusion.


Trueba (Belle Époque, La Reina de España) and the renowned artist Mariscal reunite for a second animated feature after their Oscar-nominated turn in the brilliant Chico y Rita. They use real-life interviews, archival recordings, and news audio to craft an investigative murder mystery with a biographical and historical intent. Tenório Jr. was beloved by everyone who knew and worked with him, but there was little personal evidence to truly frame the man behind the keys. Harris is a tool for them to stage a narrative that teaches and excoriates. The audience learns intimate details about Tenório Jr., why his contribution to music is so important, and the reason people like him were considered a threat to the dictators ruling South America at the time.

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They Shot the Piano Playerhas stunning animation. Trueba and Mariscal capture a vibrant world with endearing simplicity and clever use of rotoscoping, a technique that traces over filmed footage frame by frame. They eschew granular detail in wide-angle shots. Scenes of nightclub frivolity, lush beaches, and carnival revelers are cartoonish fun. The conducted interviews of Tenório Jr.’s colleagues, friends, family, and lover are rotoscoped for a more authentic feel. Trueba and Mariscal achieve an added gravitas by focusing on realism through personal recollections. Tenório Jr.’s youngest child was born after his execution. Legacy is the only thread left for children who never knew their father.

Jeff Goldblum’s Faux Protagonist


The musical themes fade into the background as the third act addresses Tenório Jr.’s cruel fate. Argentina’s military junta engaged in a “Dirty War” against suspected communists and leftists from 1976 to 1983. This clandestine purge resulted in 30,000 “disappeared” people. Men, women, and children were targeted for their perceived beliefs and political associations. Many left their homes and were never seen again. Innocent citizens were kidnapped, taken to detention centers, tortured, interrogated, raped, and eventually murdered by their own government.

Trueba and Mariscal graphically illustrate the consequences of Operation Condor, a CIA-sponsored program that enabled South American dictators to target with impunity anyone deemed a threat. Its heinous grip crossed state lines. No one was safe from persecution.

Related: Best Animated Documentaries to Watch, Ranked


They Shot the Piano Player tells an important story, but has a significant Jeff Harris problem. The character created to guide the plot isn’t remotely interesting and takes up valuable time with no benefit. Meandering tangents about Harris’ faux life are superfluous. Trueba and Mariscal could have just used Goldblum as the film’s narrator without the unnecessary distraction of a fictional protagonist. Tenório Jr., like all the disappeared, deserves justice and acknowledgment. There’s no need for bells and whistles.

They Shot the Piano Player, also titled Dispararon al Pianista, has English, Spanish, and Portuguese dialogue with subtitles. The film is a production of Fernando Trueba PC, Gao Shan Pictures, Les Films D’ici, and Prima Linea, et al. It is currently in limited theatrical release from Sony Pictures Classics. You can watch the trailer below:


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