I was able to see They Shot the Piano Player during this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, covering the event for my friends at No Rest for the Weekend for the first time. In the brief recap I did for them, I noted that this was the most unique film I saw of the bunch, and I stand by that, but I do feel it needs a mild qualification now that it’s been released in general theatres. More than anything, the visuals are new and exciting, as is the story that unfolds. Some of the methods are derivative, but they’re spun in novel ways. Also, just among the five entries that I saw, it was the most unconventional, as two were straightforward documentaries, while the other two were International Feature submissions (I’ll cover those more fully as we approach the Academy’s shortlist announcements, as both have public release dates, but not until after the first cuts are made).
All of this is to say that, thematically, I have seen films like this before, but there’s enough good stuff that it still felt innovative. There are some creative choices that didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped, but nearly two months after I first saw this, a lot of it is still lodged in my brain, which is a testament to the overall quality and the importance of the story.
Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, the team behind the Oscar-nominated Chico and Rita, the film is a deep dive into the tragedy of Francisco Tenório Júnior, a bossa nova piano virtuoso who was in all likelihood killed by the authoritarian government in Argentina in 1976. The military junta, which ruled until it was overthrown in the 1980s, swiftly and severely “disappeared” thousands of perceived political dissidents, and testimonials state that Tenório Júnior was among the collateral damage. He had done nothing wrong, but once he was arrested while out past curfew (being a Brazilian musician on tour, he likely was unaware of such a restriction), it became clear to those in power that allowing him to leave alive would bring public blowback against them, so instead he was tortured, shot, and dumped in the ocean. That’s the unofficial story as we know it, from one of the guards who later gave interviews claiming to have witnessed Tenório Júnior’s fate.
Based on the academic and historical nature of what you just read, you’d expect this to be a documentary, but strictly speaking, it’s not. This is instead a docudrama using archival audio and records of fact blended into a fictional narrative through animation. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not this is a good idea — quite frankly I’m still on the fence about it — but it is intriguing nonetheless.
In 2010, a fictitious music journalist named Jeff Harris, voiced by Jeff Goldblum, is on a book tour promoting his new historical novel, which shares the same title as the movie. Introduced by his publicist Jessica (Roberta Wallach), the story unfolds as a lengthy flashback narrated by Jeff. A lifelong jazz aficionado, Jeff is working on a follow-up to an acclaimed story he published in The New Yorker, focusing on bossa nova specifically. While poring over various records, he hears a hypnotic piano solo on one of the tracks. He looks at the liner notes and sees Tenório Júnior’s name for the first time. How could he have gone his whole career without ever knowing who this fantastic musician was? Doing some research, he finds that Tenório only put out one album, which to Jeff is even more puzzling. Planning a trip down to Brazil for some tours and interviews, he mentions Tenório Júnior to his local contact, João (Tony Ramos), who happens to know a lot on the subject, as well as several people he can talk to in order to learn more. Before long, Jeff has jumped down the rabbit hole, desperate for any information he can find about this lost pianist, and upon learning about his sad end, why he had to die, making it his personal mission to make sure Tenório’s legacy is not lost to time.
On the surface, the use of the fictional framing is so that we can incorporate tons of interview sound from various sources, mostly musicians and industry insiders in South America, all of whom gave their opinions to different outlets at different times, and many of whom are now also deceased. That much I get. At the same time, though, the highfalutin nature of Jeff’s occupation does harm the accessibility of this story. I mean, do the filmmakers honestly think that the common viewer will give a shit about some stuffed shirt jazz fan who writes for The New Yorker? Essentially they’re relying on the film’s attention-grabbing title and the quality of the animation to draw an audience, rendering the narrative device somewhat redundant. Jazz fans who are aware of Tenório Júnior will already be engaged, and the other two items are enough to entice others, so it’s worth asking whether it would have been better to just make this a normal documentary. You can still include Goldblum for narration, and use the interviews to turn this into a regular archival doc, so I’m curious as to why the filmmakers chose this route. It doesn’t necessarily detract from the proceedings, but it certainly doesn’t enhance them. Like I said, I’m still wavering on my final opinion on this particular aspect.
Apart from that, though, the story is fascinating. We learn about Tenório Júnior’s skills as a musician, his love of life and women (interviews are conducted with both his widow and the mistress he was with on the night of his abduction), and his affinity for jazz legend Bill Evans. We see in graphic (but imagined) terms just how cruel the world can be, as essentially Tenório died through an extreme case of bad luck, being picked up while out buying cigarettes. There’s also a timely cautionary element to keep in mind, as the junta has only been out of power for 40 years, and yet Argentina just elected a bombastic populist who wields a chainsaw at his rallies, wants to eliminate the country’s currency, and promises to tear down nearly every government agency in the name of rooting out so-called “deep state” corruption, taking notes from Donald Trump’s playbook. He’s yet another wannabe strongman dictator who could easily ride a public wave of resentment and scapegoating to instate a new version of that same oppressive regime that thought it was okay to murder anyone who disagreed. Is it really that far-fetched of an idea?
From a technical perspective, the film excels on two main fronts. First, in whatever form this was going to take, casting Jeff Goldblum was about as perfect a choice as Trueba and Mariscal could have made. His dulcet tones accompany the music (both the ambient score and the licensed jazz selections) brilliantly. At times it feels like you could close your eyes and imagine Goldblum at some beat poetry open mic night just reading to you, and it both relaxes you and inflames your imagination. There is literally no better voice out there to complement this particular story and this particular sound profile.
Second, of course, is the animation. From a structural standpoint, the film follows in the footsteps of Loving Vincent, which also animated an exploration into an artist’s final moments. But from a stylistic point of view, my mind went immediately to Fantasia 2000. In that highly underrated Disney sequel, one of the better sequences was about George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The animation was done in the style of Al Hirschfield’s caricatures, and used the instrumentation to basically bring New York City to life in a highly imaginative 1930s landscape. This film does the same with bossa nova. Like Blue Giant earlier this year with hot jazz, as well as Chico and Rita with the bolero, this movie does its level best to give a true visual representation of the audio, bathing every scene in rich, bright, and vibrant colors with thick, dark outlines, blurring everything but what is truly necessary to observe as the piano spirits you along, and it is absolutely breathtaking at times.
So again, I’m not sure we really needed the backdrop of a fake book tour to make this work. The animation is gorgeous. The voice work from Goldblum is flawless. The story is beyond compelling while also being heartbreaking and unintentionally poignant. I think I’ve made up my mind on this point. This would have been just fine as an animated documentary, which has itself become something of a trending leitmotif thanks to films like Flee and Waltz with Bashir. Creating a false pretense for the story isn’t exactly bad, but it is superfluous. That shouldn’t stop you from checking this out if you can, just know going in that the setup is manufactured.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you like animated documentaries? What other musical forms would you like to see rendered visually? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!