Screens at CIFF: 10/14 & 10/15 & 10/16
World premiere: 4 September, 2010, Telluride Film Festival
Chico & Rita exists is, basically, because a documentarian, Fernando Trueba, and one of his subjects, the world-renowned designer Javier Mariscal, wanted to make a movie together. I admire the purity of that motivation, though in the spirit of fairness, Chico & Rita sort of feels like a movie that was whipped up to give two people a chance to collaborate for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with its story: its charms are potent, but so is the ancient creakiness of the scenario and the manner of its telling. It's old-fashioned, not in an as-such bad way, but not in a terribly inspired way either. The good news is that the film's design and animation (the latter spearheaded by Mariscal's younger brother Tono Errando, who is frequently cited as a third co-director though he is not given an official credit to that effect are so sublimely appealling that the story gets to be an afterthought; or, at least, the story doesn't actively ruin your day.
The story: in Havana, 1948, a young piano player with big dreams, Chico Valdes (Eman Xor Oña) meets and falls instantly in love with Rita Martinez (Limara Meneses), a singer in the glitzy tourist spots of the day. He overcomes her resistance and the two of them spend a few happy weeks as Chico & Rita, one of the brightest new acts of the Cuban jazz scene. American beckons, though, and fed up with Chico's over-fondness for the ladies, Rita heads off to New York, and becomes a huge success thanks to the mania for the exotic in the post-war United States. Chico follows and eventually plays with icons like Tito Puente and Dizzy Gillespie, becoming himself one of the the major faces of the Afro-Cuban music scene, but things keep getting in between the two on-again, off-again lovers, and by the time she heads to Hollywood and he to Paris, it's clear that their professional ambitions, and worst yet, the professional ambitions of others, are destined to keep them apart. This is all recollected from Chico's perspective, many years later, when he hears a radio station playing one of the old Chico & Rita recordings as an old man.
The one thing that keeps the story from sliding off the screen entirely is that this isn't just a film about emotionally unstable artists; it's a film about emotionally unstable jazz musicians, and while that doesn't make the narrative beats any less predictable, it does suggest the atmosphere of smoky sexuality that drives Chico and Rita to be the way they are. It's enough to make the story play like its clichés are a choice and not an accident, though nothing can redeem the absurdly cutesy-pie contrivance of the final scene. But let me not go there.
Far, far more important than the not-terribly-compelling question of how the lovers are going to fuck things up yet again, is the film's rich saturation with the style and sensibility of the world it depicts: not since The Secret of Kells has an animated feature married form and content so brilliantly. Two things are at play: first is the visual language of the '50s Afro-Cuban jazz that the film so loves, and second is nostalgia for that period, so that the design of Chico & Rita ends up being a hybrid of vintage and retro impulses. It's absolutely gorgeous, either way, with blocks of color and thick, stylised lines and movement just far enough away from the hyper-fluid Disney style that it foregrounds, rather than hides, the animation process (though without being as overtly presentational as the similarly limited animation of Japanese anime). Aw hell, it looks like this:
It's a lousy trailer, but it gives a sense of what makes the film work in its animation; and it barely gives a sense of the wonderfully fragrant romanticism of the film's Havana and New York locations, captured in Mariscal's designs with a lovely excess of detail that never plays as "realism", but as a fluid, squashy, cartoonish idea of what the 1950s must have looked like in those places. It's unabashedly sentimental and ditzy, but seductive anyway, and that is the purpose of these nostalgia trips, is it not? To seduce.
A final word on the music: with an original score by legendary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, whose life story provided some of the film's plot details along with its encyclopedic awareness of the culture of '50s Cuban musicians in the State, it's little surprise that Chico & Rita sounds outrageously authentic, with all the slinky notes and cool sensibility of the very best sort of '50s jazz. I am told this kind of music is an acquired taste, and maybe that is so; certainly, anyone who doesn't like it is going to have a harder go with the film than anyone who does, although I think one of the particular strengths of Chico & Rita is that it presents this music with such conviction and rich performances that it could convert anybody into a fan on the spot.