Chico & Rita

From their humble beginnings in Cuba to the big time in New York City, the rise of Latin jazz is documented through the love affair of Chico and Rita. The narrative is a bit conventional. It’s your standard rags to riches story and it hits all of the soap opera stereotypes you’ve seen a million times. If this was a live action drama there might not be enough here to engage our attention. However the chronicle never loses sight of our two protagonists as the focus. I found this to be a beautiful expression of jazz and Latin music during the 1940s and ‘50s in Havana and New York.

Chico & Rita is a rather unconventional animation. Every frame is drawn in a technique that qualifies as more than a mere cartoon, it’s art. The drawings employ a very clean graphic style, bold and bright with thick lines. The look and the mood of the era are exquisitely captured. The atmosphere, street scenes, and fashions are quite evocative. The uncharacteristic approach in which the drama takes its time is lovely. The production unfolds at a leisurely pace to tell its tale. Characters move at the deliberate pace of natural people. Their expressions aren’t nearly as detailed as the elaborate backgrounds, but they suggest much more than they show. Nuance and silence aren’t attributes usually associated with a cartoon, but they occur here. Even the sound effects get things just right, from the way the piano tones echo through a room or an idling car engine to footsteps across the floor and the sounds of traffic outside a window, everything has the feel of real life.

The film highlights Latin jazz and the compositions are sumptuous. Anyone with an appreciation for jazz will find much to enjoy here. The moviemakers clearly have a genuine affection for the genre. Spanish director Fernando Trueba who won the Academy Award in 1994 for Belle Époque joins Spanish artist Javier Mariscal and Mariscal’s younger brother Tono Errando, in directing Chico & Rita. Although this is a fictionalized account, artists Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker all make appearances here. These people give the fable a historical truth. Chano Pozo, a conga player in Gillespie’s band, is in a cameo here as well. His untimely death becomes a minor plot point. Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, wrote the score and plays on the soundtrack as Chico. The movie which contains parts of his own life is dedicated to him. Idania Valdés (no relation) provides Rita’s singing voice. Her performance of “Bésame Mucho” is one of many standouts. Rita is positively seductive. Not since Jessica Rabbit has an animated creation been so sexually suggestive. In case you misunderstand, Chico & Rita is definitely NOT for kids.

The story arc may have the clichéd trajectory of a Behind the Music TV episode, but that’s because so many showbiz careers really have followed that career path. The main characters aren’t particularly likeable but they’re very authentic. They behave like human beings driven by lust and greed. These individuals curse, smoke, do drugs and have sex. They’re not sensitive or cloying.  What they are is a convincing depiction of real people and attitudes of a certain time period. That uniqueness is kind of refreshing. But most of all, this is a love letter to a bygone era made by aficionados who truly appreciate Latin jazz, which was essentially a mixture of bebop and Cuban folk. It’s a visually lush and beguiling re-creation that earned this a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. The picture draws attention to this beautiful music and I can think of worse things than reveling in these poetic rhythms for 94 minutes.

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12 Responses to “Chico & Rita”

  1. Nice review, Mark. I bet I’ll like this movie. I’m not much a connoisseur, but I LOVE jazz.

  2. Sounds like animated porn (i.e. Fritz the Cat). Am I right?

    • I have no idea why you would jump to that conclusion. It’s not that type of film.

      • Sorry about that. I must have misinterpreted:

        “Rita is positively seductive. Not since Jessica Rabbit has an animated creation been so sexually suggestive. In case you misunderstand, Chico & Rita is definitely NOT for kids.”

        🙂

    • I think so. Jessica Rabbit was a character from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That wasn’t for kids either, but it definitely wasn’t pornography. 🙂

      • Oh, Jessica Rabbit! Shoot. I haven’t seen that film in a WHILE, nor can I claim to actually watching the entire thing, so it’s not likely that I would have remembered the characters’ names. Therefore I just jumped to the conclusion that Jessica Rabbit was some animated animal character like Fritz the Cat who was created by a mentally disturbed person, for lack of a better word. 🙂 Thanks for clarifying!

  3. I thought the animation was amazing! Music was awesome. Story and characters were good, but not great! As a live action movie, I think it would be a pretty standard story, but again, the music was great!

  4. I could gladly close my eyes and listen to this film,the soundtrack is stunning and I adored it

  5. I just saw this and LOVED it.

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