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They Shot the Piano Player

They Shot the Piano Player

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They Shot the Piano Player
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Fernando Trueba
Run Time: 103 minutes

They Shot the Piano Player is an animated docudrama that explores the real-world 1976 disappearance of Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior. Tenório was a gifted young pianist (34 years old at the time of his disappearance) who was on tour with Toquinho and Vinicius De Moraes in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when he went out on a late-night errand, never to be seen again. It was six days before the military coup, but the regime of Isabelita Perón was on its last legs. In the streets of Buenos Aires, military groups, paramilitaries, and extreme left-wing Peronist guerrillas were waging a silent, undeclared war, which included the first of what came to be known as "disappearances." The truth of the pianist's fate is unknown, but he is believed to have been kidnapped, tortured and killed.

The film opens in New York City in 2009 with a signing for a new book entitled They Shot the Piano Player. Music journalist Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) was convinced to write a book about Bossa Nova after being promised several trips to Rio de Janeiro. While listening to recordings in preparation for the first trip, a pianist named Tenório caught his ear. He had never heard of him and was intrigued by his playing. In Brazil—with the help of a friend—he began reaching out to people who knew the pianist.

Contacting Tenório's wife was complicated (it involved calling a pay phone in a distant village where she lived), and he failed to connect with her on this trip. His next stop was Tucson, Arizona, where American saxophonist Bud Shank lived. Shank had made some of the earliest samba-jazz recordings with guitarist Laurindo Almeida in Los Angeles and had heard the pianist in a club during a visit to Rio. Back in Rio, Harris met Tenório's mistress Milena and heard about a dinner with Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla in Buenos Aires during a Vinicius tour. The pianist also admired the American jazz pianist Bill Evans, and they got together whenever Evans visited Brazil.

Harris eventually talked to many well-known Brazilian musicians who knew Tenório (many associated with the MPB (Música popular brasileira) movement that succeeded Bossa Nova), including Vinicius de Moraes, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso. While there may be too many talking heads, it is an impressive collection. It would have been satisfying to find a solution to the mystery. Still, the film captures a fleeting time bursting with creative freedom at a turning point in Latin American history in the '60s and '70s, just before totalitarian regimes engulfed the continent. Javier Mariscal's impressionistic animation successfully and convincingly portrays the historical settings and real-world actors. The viewer never has to question the "reality" of the presentation.

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