Chico & Rita
Spain (2010) Dirs. Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal & Tono Errando
Hopefully the days of people ignorantly dismissing animation as just for kids are long gone as films made for the adult audience via this medium have proven to be just as rich as if they were live action tales. In the case of a film like Chico & Rita, it probably wouldn’t work as well if it WAS a live action film.
The story begins in modern day Cuba as an old man is returning home to his meagre little flat overlooking the square, having spent the day the shining shows for tourists. He switches on the radio and hears a familiar tune which takes him back to Havana in 1948.
As a hotshot pianist Chico was looking for that big break with the help of his friend Ramon but was stuck playing small bar gigs yet still lived the high life. One night he is mesmerised by the enchanting voice and striking beauty of a singer, Rita, in such a small establishment and makes a play for her only to be rejected by her.
Undeterred Chico eventually wows Rita with his piano playing and it would seem the pair are destined to be together. However Chico’s womanising ways and jealousy of the attention Rita gets from other men continually upset the apple cart despite the literal beautiful music they make together.
A misunderstanding between them sees Rita accepting a deal to work in New York alone, despite insisting on Chico being included. As Chico and Ramon pursue Rita to New York where both their careers take unexpected turns.
The genesis of Chico & Rita came when director Fernando Trueba commissioned a poster for his Latin jazz documentary Calle 54 he was making from artist Javier Mariscal. Trueba was so impressed with the artwork that he commissioned more for his record label promotional material and animated music videos which eventually extended to this feature length animated film.
From the onset one can tell that the love of Jazz is genuine and the references run deeper than some of the obvious ones that appear in the New York portion of the story. While the appearance of Charlie Parker in a night club Ramon and Chico visit seems a little ham fisted, along with Chico later getting a gig with Dizzy Gillespie, the true authenticity comes in the music Chico and Rita play back in Havana.
And it is not just limited to them since Jazz is ostensibly the national soundtrack – at least until Castro took over – and even locals using makeshift instruments can turn out a decent tune.
At first the story doesn’t appear to have much of an agenda other than to tell the tale of a love from days gone by. With only Chico appearing in the modern day segments, Rita’s fate, and that of their relationship, is therefore the conceit of the story. Even as it unfolds the development is never predictable although the rags-to-riches formula covers familiar ground.
In a somewhat frustrating yet understandable move the focus of the story is not no what they did together but what they did apart from each other and the various paths that always brought them back to one another before fate dealt another blow.
If it wasn’t for Chico’s Casanova breaking them up after the first night, it was his foolishness and jealously that sent Rita to New York alone. By the time Chico arrives Rita is a rising star and Chico is no good for her.
The story takes a slightly darker turn as Chico becomes involved with New York drug dealers and Rita’s career hits the brick wall in the form of the culture shock called racism.
Meanwhile Chico finds success in France with Gillespie and even has a hit record with a song called Lily (named after a dog) which was originally called Rita. But again whenever things start to look up for them, someone has their hands on the hem of the rug ready to pull it from under their feet.
Essentially this is a story of “what ifs” but with a pounding a vibrant jazz soundtrack, which if you are a fan is a positive boon; if you’re not you will be a fan by the end of it, the choice of tracks are that infectious.
Incorporating Latin, swing and bluesy Jazz the music is an integral part of the film’s personality and identity. A living breathing entity in its own right, it both sets the scene and becomes the scene; it tells the story and provides the ambience.
It perfectly compliments the animation and artwork which is admittedly as freeform and haphazard as the music itself, at least for modern tastes. Rough around the edges with the faces rarely registering emotion, the cast on occasion look a little flat but the acutely replicated movements and simple use of cell shading rings them to life, brimming with personality and charisma.
The backgrounds look hastily drawn yet are detailed and truly convincing. Trueba did years of intensive research of archived photos of 1940’s Cuba to get the images pitch perfect and the results are there to see in their splendour.
Also due a credit is the use of sound effects which again begins an intrinsic factor in conveying the living world that surrounds the cast. One can almost feel the hot summer sun, the sweaty Jazz clubs and the élan of Paris as the ambience of the sounds take you deep into the settings.
A joyous and delightful demonstration of when the sum of the parts come together Chico & Rita proves that heart and genuine passion towards your subject will always outweigh technical achievements. It may tell a simple story but it does so with warmth and soul and a soundtrack you won’t object to having ringing in your ears long after the end credits roll.