Theater / Film

Animated film about promising Brazilian pianist who vanished is a music lover’s dream

Written By Fernando Gonzalez
February 28, 2024 at 6:53 PM

“They Shot The Piano Player,” a film by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, opens at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, March 1 and in Key West on Friday, March 15.  (Photo by Javier Mariscal, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Brazilian pianist Francisco Cerqueira Tenorio Jr., better known as Tenorio Jr., was at the beginning of a promising career when he disappeared after playing the final concert of poet Vinicius de Moraes’s tour in Buenos Aires in March 1976. He was 34 years old.

“They Shot the Piano Player,” the new animated film by Oscar-winning writer-director Fernando Trueba (“Belle Epoque,”1992) and visual artist and graphic designer Javier Mariscal premiering in Miami at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, March 1, is a music lover’s search for a response to the obvious question and more.

Trueba, a dedicated music fan whose previous animated feature film collaboration with Mariscal, “Chico y Rita” was about music and musicians, chose animation to tell the story because he says he “wanted Tenorio Jr. to feel alive.”

“That Rio where Tenorio came of age musically, those clubs, don’t exist anymore. I wanted that vitality and people to understand the context in which he moved,” says Trueba, speaking in Spanish in a telephone interview from his home in Madrid. “And for me, that I love Brazilian music, it was an opportunity to explore the Brazil of the late 50s, early 60s, perhaps the country’s highest point.”

Jeff Goldblum is the voice of Jeff Harris, a music writer who sets out to uncover the truth about Francisco Tenório Júnior, a young Brazilian samba-jazz pianist who disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976. (Photo by Javier Mariscal, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player” follows music journalist Jeff Harris, voiced by American actor and pianist Jeff Goldblum. While researching to write a book about bossa nova, Harris, Trueba’s alter ego, hears an album featuring Tenorio Jr. He is deeply impressed but can’t find any recording by him after 1975, and becomes obsessed with his fate.

It gives Trueba, a fan of Brazilian music, a chance to offer a delightful, if often melancholy, music history lesson as it revisits a Rio de Janeiro full of life, a creative moment bubbling with bossa nova and samba jazz, offering context and setting the stage for Tenorio Jr.’s rise. In Mariscal’s imagery and animation, it is a Rio of dense, luxuriant colors and non-stop movement.

As a pianist, Tenorio Jr. had a light, clean touch that often evoked Bill Evans, one of his idols, a gift for melody and an easy, elegant swing.

He accompanied top artists such as Milton Nascimento, Egberto Gismonti, and Gal Costa, and his playing appears in several Brazilian music collections. He recorded only one album as a leader, “Embalo,” released in 1964. Captured with elegance and a musical ear by Mariscal’s animation, the sequence rendering the studio recording of the title track, which featured an all-star cast, brings back the look and feel of Calle 54″ (2000), Trueba’s documentary on Latin jazz.

An artist whose work and interests reaches across media and disciplines —from furniture design and graphic design, to painting, sculpture, illustration, and animation, Mariscal’s eye for detail makes you forget that while you are hearing the real voices of the people being interviewed, what you are seeing is artwork.

Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim depicted in “They Shot the Piano Player.” (Photo by Javier Mariscal, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Case in point: Trueba had a clarinetist perform the melody of “Embalo” as he filmed his hands playing the instrument. In a segment of “They Shot the Piano Player” as the great, late Paulo Moura reminisces about Tenorio Jr. and plays a fragment of the melody, Mariscal’s animated depiction of his performance shows the true fingering of the passage on the clarinet.

The film’s music includes several tracks by Tenorio Jr. but also a rich list of indispensable titles in Brazilian popular music, including “Chega de Saudade,” (“No More Blues”), the alpha of the bossa nova movement, “So Danço Samba, “”Ela e Carioca,” and even a few bars of “Travessia,” Nascimento’s breakthrough song. Uncanny, animated versions of the late pianists Bebo Valdés and Joao Donato, towering figures in Cuban and Brazilian music, respectively, make cameos to play music by Tenorio Jr.

As he pulls on the slender threads available to find some answers, the character of Harris, Trueba’s alter ego, calls on a who’s who in Brazilian music, artists such as Caetano Veloso (who expected to record with the pianist at his return from Buenos Aires and says he “always felt very reverent before Tenorio because of his musical ability”), Edu Lobo, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Joao Donato, and Moura. He also seeks out American saxophonist Bud Shank, whose Brazilian-tinged jazz with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida in the mid-’50s, foreshadowed the Brazilian music wave headed to the United States. He heard Tenorio Jr. on a visit to Rio and speaks animatedly of him and the Brazilian scene — only to be stunned into silence at finding out the pianist’s fate.

Ella Fitzgerald animated in “They Shot The Piano Player,” a film by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal. (Photo by Javier Mariscal, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The film also offers a sobering look at dictatorships and state terrorism in Latin America in the 1970s, which ended up costing Tenorio Jr. his life.

It’s a few years and a short flight between the Beco das Garrafas (Alley of the Bottles), where small clubs became the hub for music in Rio in the ’50s and ’60s, and the dungeons and torture chambers at the “Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada” or ESMA, (Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy), the secret concentration camp in Buenos Aires that under the military dictatorship (1976-1983) became the Auschwitz of Argentina.

Tenorio Jr. was not involved in any political activity. After the last concert — Vinicius, Tenorio Jr., and the rest of the group were returning to Brazil the following day — he went back to his hotel. Hungry around 2 a.m., he went looking for a place to buy a sandwich. His youth, long hair, how he was dressed, and, the fact that he had a musician union’s card in his pocket when a gang of plainclothes policeman on the prowl stopped him, targeted him as suspicious.

“They Shot The Piano Player” features Jeff Goldblum, archive footage, and tributes to Truffaut and Chico Buarque. (Photo by Javier Mariscal, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

In those days, everyday life in Buenos Aires was poisoned by fear. Trapped in a logic of violence and murder carried on by police death squads, right-wing paramilitary gangs, and leftist guerrillas, Argentina had become a nation of suspects and enemies. After a couple of days of interrogation and torture, the Argentine police reached out to representatives of the Brazilian military government to ask about Tenorio Jr. They confirmed that he was not involved in politics and was not a suspect in anything. But by then, it was too late. Tenorio Jr. was never seen again.

Desaparecido, disappeared, is Argentina’s contribution to the lexicon of terror.

In the film, Harris says that he became “a victim of two dictatorships.”

To learn about the man, Trueba also reached for testimony from Tenorio Jr.’s wife Carmen (because his body was never found, she is not officially a widow), his children and grandchildren, and Malena, the woman the pianist was involved with at the time of his disappearance.

“If you get to know a person by the people who love him, meeting Carmen and Malena tells you everything you need to know about Tenorio,” says Trueba. “And he was a serious person. He and Carmen had four kids, and they were expecting another child. Tenorio was not one to fool around. He was deeply conflicted by the affair.”

As we hear from the people who remember him, “They Shot the Piano Player” adds up the devastating costs of state terrorism in Latin America. Some are obvious and deeply personal — first, to Tenorio Jr., then to his family, and loved ones. And then there is the profound loss that such a death of a talent represents to a society.


(Trueba talks about his movie for Coral Gables Art Cinema)

The military coup in Brazil in March 1964 (the dictatorship then lasted until 1985) “stopped a Golden Age of Brazilian music in its tracks,” laments the character of Harris in the film.

“I am not a musician, so I can’t explain it in technical terms,” says Trueba in the telephone interview when asked what affected him so strongly about Tenorio’s playing. “But you could hear his touch, his ideas, and how he was bringing together jazz, Brazilian music, and classical music. He was on to something. He was special.”

WHAT: “They Shot The Piano Player” from Sony Pictures Classics

WHERE: Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, and Tropic Cinema Key West, 416 Eaton St., Key West

WHEN: Opens Friday, March 1 in Coral Gables and Friday, March 15 in Key West

COST:  Varies by theater

INFORMATION: 786-472-2249, 305-397-4944, gablescinema.com, tropiccinema.com or sonyclassics.com/film

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