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Chico and Rita

It’s a musical, celebrating the pulsating fusion of Cuban and American jazz. It’s an animated film, sensual and evocative; take the kids to Pixar’s Brave, not to this one. It’s bittersweet romance between Chico, a suave Cuban piano player who meets the smouldering singer Rita in a nightclub in Havana in 1948. Their ill-fated romance spans nearly 60 years, three continents, and features sex, drugs, and jazz (along with mobster violence and racism). The movie lives from its soundtrack, including an original jazz score by the great Cuban pianist and composer Bebo Valdes, a five-time Grammy winner. It was the surprise 2012 Oscar nomination in the animated feature category. The film echos both the soundtrack and the dignity of Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club. Through the wonders of animation Chico and Rita mingle with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Nat King Cole, Bud Powell, and Chano Pozo. How exhilarating it must have been for the movie makers Javier Mariscal, Fernando Trueba, and Tono Errando to effortlessly include these musical legends in their cast.

Your first visual impression is that the animation, though vivid and colorful, is flat, two dimensional, and reminiscent of Japanese anime. Your heart goes out to the dog Lily whose animator would greatly benefit from returning to art school for another course or two. The Spanish dialogue with English subtitles is sometimes barely audible or visible. But as you let the music captivate you and transport you back to post-war 1940’s Havana, the minimalist hand-drawn figures and skimpy speech matter less and less. The animators brilliantly created stunning city backdrops for Havana, New York, Paris, Las Vegas, and Hollywood; the Cuban capital especially comes to life. The filmmakers had gone to Havana and discovered a treasure trove of archival photos from 1949. They perfectly re-create the neighborhoods including flashy Cadillacs in this vibrant, borderline decadent city, America’s postwar playground. The animators also superbly portray the Cuban dances in the film. Once again they went to Havana, and found an association of older citizens now in their 80s, played the old-style music and filmed them dancing. Then they drew what they had shot, making adjustments here and there. The results are authentic and captivating thanks to some agile Cuban octogenarians caught up in the spell of days gone by. Chico and Rita is nostalgia pure, with a hauntingly unforgettable soundtrack. (Pat Frickey)


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