Film Reviews
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In the vibrantly colorful, animated documentary “They Shot the Piano Player,” directors Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal present a grim event, the mysterious 1976 disappearance of famous Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior. Investigated by New Yorker music journalist Jeff Harris, multiple interviews with colleagues and close friends lead to a tragic conclusion, the assumption of Tenório’s murder.

The film brilliantly balances the convoluted events leading to Tenório’s final, fatal encounters in Rio with his exuberant bossa nova music, which he had a decisive hand in creating. Along the way, the origins and celebration of that energetic, irresistible music buoys the story. For the fictional Harris, jazz aficionado Jeff Goldblum provides the mellifluous voice, complementing Tenório’s virtuoso piano playing.

The film’s delivery is so powerful that I felt the emotional loss when Brazilian Tenório vanished in 1970s Argentina, only having headed out to buy sandwiches during a curfew of which he was probably unaware. It has taken fifty years to pull together this story with Trueba’s twenty years of research, one hundred fifty interviews (some with bossa nova legends), culminating in this compelling, toe tapping historical record contrasting political repression with spirited music.

At this year’s Telluride Film Festival where I first saw this delightful film, Spanish co-director Fernando Trueba said he originally intended to make a live action documentary. Admiration for what Javier Marsical achieved in the animated “Chico and Rita” convinced him that their collaboration would work better. Indeed, the animation achieves a rich complexity keeping the bossa nova music as the dominant element. Both directors described their attention to detail in every frame, a layering that adds interest and important information, including from Tenório’s family. Trueba has crafted a moving tribute to Tenório through his own journalism which has courageously interrogated the circumstances of Tenório’s death. In English, Spanish, and Portuguese with English subtitles, “They Shot the Piano Player” is available now.

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