Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chico & Rita Movie Review

Chico & Rita is a lovely little tribute to an era in American culture during which a new American genre was born and to a country and its people who helped foment that genre. The genre I speak of is jazz in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the country is Cuba, which lent a great many musicians to the New York music scene, bringing with them their conga drummers and smooth Latin beats to help transmute a the burgeoning new form.

That’s just the backdrop to the story written by Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and Fernando Trueba (who also directed). The plot concerns an up and coming piano player named Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) and his partner and friend Ramón (Mario Guerra) in Havana in 1948. They meet a sexy singer named Rita (Limara Meneses) who comes complete with animated curves and allure. Chico is taken with her.

The film chronicles their rising stardom performing together in Havana until her manager gets her a contract in New York and owing to a misunderstanding and some jealousy, leaves Chico behind while she moves on to bigger things. He eventually travels to New York with Ramón and the whole film turns into a semi-tragic series of missed opportunities between the two lovers. It’s clear to everyone but each other that they belong together and finally they agree to meet in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve (the very night that Bautista relinquishes power in Cuba, incidentally, though not insignificantly), but circumstances get in the way. All this is told through the prism of an elderly Chico living in present-day Havana after he is reminded of his past while listening to a song on the radio – a song that won a radio contest some sixty years earlier and was performed by “Chico & Rita.”

Trueba is a credited director along with Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando. Mariscal is an artist and designer who worked with Trueba in designing the visual style of the film, using soft curved line animation to recreate the look and feel of the Havana and New York music scenes of the period. Errando’s background in music completes the collaboration. Chico & Rita succeeds most at the musical level where we are treated to appearances by jazz legends Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. Pozo was a percussionist who was one of the founders of the Latin jazz movement in New York. Their presence adds an element of historical fiction to the film.

The soundtrack is the real beauty of the film. In addition to tracks by such greats as Hoagy Carmichael, the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Tito Puente, there is a stunning array of original music by Bebo Valdés, to whom the film is dedicated. Chico & Rita is a great little love letter to their great work and the birth of jazz, while at the same time placing a beautiful romantic storyline in the foreground that introduces us to those wonderful rhythms.

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