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‘They Shot the Piano Player’ follows the trail of a Brazilian jazz giant’s murder

Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Attention, fans of samba, bossa nova and ambitious nonfiction/fiction hybrids, animated division: Here is a clear choice for worthwhile moviegoing.

“They Shot the Piano Player” investigates the short life and 1976 disappearance and likely political assassination of Brazilian jazz keyboardist Francisco Tenório Júnior, a revered if spottily known figure in the realm of jazz.

The film comes from Spanish director Fernando Trueba, here co-directing once again with artist Javier Mariscal. Their memorably fragrant collaboration on the 2010 animated gem “Chico & Rita” explored a similar, childlike animation style and related thematic ideas, creating a fictional love story spiced with various real-life jazz geniuses, from Dizzy Gillespie to Tito Puente.

“They Shot the Piano Player” is more about truth than imagination, but the cross-currents between the two are everywhere. It begins with a book signing. A (fictional) Brooklyn-based journalist acknowledges that his new book on Tenório Jr. was born from an unfinished book on the cultural history and analysis of the bossa nova movement. The name Tenório was new to him, he tells his bookstore audience. But realizing Tenório Jr. played on so many seminal bossa nova albums coming out of Brazil, exported to an eternally grateful world, he had his subject.

That subject’s tragic, dangling-modifier of an ending only made it more urgent. On tour in Buenos Aires, in the midst of the Argentinean dictatorship’s state-sanctioned torture and murder spree targeting vaguely defined dissidents, the Brazilian piano player met up with his lover. Late that night, Tenório Jr. left the hotel for a nearby sandwich shop. “He went to the corner and didn’t come back,” the woman recalls in “They Shot the Piano Player,” whose real-life memories become part of the film’s nonfiction/fiction amalgam.

The filmmakers keep an eye on clarity, which is important since docu-hybrids risk fudging the line between imagined reality and real reality. Jeff Goldblum, an identifiable performer if ever there was one, provides the voice of the journalist researching Tenório’s influence and disappearance. It’s a true if foggy story big enough to encompass many friends, relatives, children and admirers — along with material highlighting the U.S. role in various Latin American coups and dictatorial regimes.

Most of the voices we hear are authentic, coming from the filmmakers’ interviews, then rendered visually as animated versions of the real people. Elsewhere in “They Shot the Piano Player” (the title riffing on the 1960 Francois Truffaut film “Shoot the Piano Player”), the movie dreams up scenes of Tenório Jr. on tour, or with his lover, or with his wife and children. He was a family man, by many accounts, albeit a dreamy, unreliable, unfaithful and perennially broke family man.

The film basically and improbably works, even with some limitations. Most of the brilliant, gorgeous, world-changing music, starting with the 1958 recording of “Chega de Saudade,” confines itself to the first half. The second half goes too deep into the writer’s investigation of what likely happened to Tenório Jr. after he became one of the “disappeared” to accommodate much in the way of bossa nova breezes. “They Shot the Piano Player” sometimes feels like two films, required to share the same framework.

Even so, the telling details linger. One Tenório contemporary, who says he witnessed the kidnapping, remembers that the brutal Argentinean government favored Ford Falcons, black, as the abduction vehicles of choice. In the end Tenório Jr. may have had the simple, awful bad luck to visit Buenos Aires at a time when widespread sweeps and incarceration of “subversive elements” permeated daily life and death. Tenório Jr. didn’t care much about politics or political dissent. Maybe not at all, in fact. It was enough, says one real-life government flunky, now “reformed,” that Tenório Jr. ventured out late one night looking like a communist sympathizer — because, as the man says, after a nervous pause, he seemed like he’d have “artist and musician friends.”

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‘THEY SHOT THE PIANO PLAYER’

3 stars (out of 4) 

MPA rating: PG-13 (for smoking and some violence)

Running time: 1:43

How to watch: Now In theaters

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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