Sunday 21 November 2010

Film Review: Chico & Rita, Duke of York's Picturehouse

Great jazz films are all too infrequent. Animated films about jazz non-existent. Chico & Rita is a full-length animation set against a background of Havana and New York in the Forties and Fifties set to a soundtrack of Be-Bebop and Afro-Cuban rhythms. If you like be-bop, you'll love Chico & Rita.

Chico is the best pianist in Forties Havana, playground of the American rich. He plays the local clubs and gets a break when he sits in with Woody Herman's Four Brothers at The Tropicana to sight read Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto. He meets the beautiful Rita, a nightclub singer. The couple spend a passionate night together before being disturbed by Chico's lover. The women fight and then both walk out on Chico. This is the start of a fifty year on-off romance. Rita finds fame in New York shows and Hollywood movies. Chico becomes a leading pianist playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Ben Webster.

Fiction and reality merge. Chico and his agent are in a Harlem club with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo (who wrote Dizzy's hit Manteca) when he is gunned down by a drug dealer he has accused of selling him oregano instead of weed. This is based on fact. They walk into a club to hear Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk playing. Rita goes to the Village Vanguard to listen to Chico playing with Ben Webster. Chico is busted when drugs are found on him after a raid on a club and he is deported to Cuba where the revolution is in full flow.

The film was directed by Oscar winner Fernando Trueba (Belle Époque) and leading Catalan designer Javier Mariscal. Mariscal created the "look" of Barcelona in the Eighties and Nineties - his illustrations making it looking like Havana on The Mediterrean. His images dominated the Barcelona Olympics (remember Cobi the dog mascot and those cartoon city maps?). The movements of the characters are life-like (based on live action) and there is a sensuality about the dancing and sex scenes that is really unusual for animation. There is plenty of action - car chases in huge Buicks and Cadillacs, police raids, fight scenes - and wonderful cityscapes of Havana, New York and Paris. Though an animation, it is definitely aimed at adults.

Plenty of great jazz too. As well as the classic be-bop recordings of the era (Blue Monk, Manteca) Chico sits in a bar playing Bud Powell's beautiful Celia (the theme of the film is a tune Chico writes called Rita). Ben Webster playing in The Vanguard is actually Jimmy Heath and Nat "King" Cole is sung by his brother, Fredy. The music was written by Cuban bandleader, pianist and composer Bebo Valdés, who lived through the period and, like Chico, spent time in the States and Europe.

Obviously this was not a film created for jazz fans. It has the production values of a box office hit and pretty much any adult could enjoy the love story, the music, the action and the scenery. It may also change people's perception of Cuban music as it places Cuba at the cutting edge of modern jazz in the Forties.

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