Fernando Trueba’s “They Shot the Piano Player”: Revealed in Annecy

They were all so incredibly young. Caetano Veloso opened the Vila Velha Theater in Salvador at the age of 21, a milestone for the city. in March 1964 when he was 23 years old.

But he played piano on some of the greatest samba-jazz records of all time, some with Raul de Sousa on trombone and JT Meirelles on tenor sax.

“These guys were the geniuses of Brazilian music and they were only 23 years old,” said Oscar-winning writer-director Fernando Trueba (“Belle Epoque”) diversity in Annecy.

If Tenório isn’t better known, it’s partly because he was assassinated “desaparecido” while on tour in Argentina in 1976, a full life was suddenly shattered at the age of 35 when a military coup took place in the country.

No one asked the Argentine police to investigate his death as they were part of the law enforcement forces that killed him, Spanish writer-director Fernando Trueba noted this week on stage in Annecy where “They Shot the Piano Player” was revealed was in progress.

Decades later, Trueba’s interview with Carmen, Tenório Jr.’s widow — for what was then conceived as a documentary about Tenório — was the first interview she had ever been asked to do.

The history of Latin America is so often marked by defeats. “They Shot the Piano Player” tries to track down the truth on several levels. Who Was Tenorio Jr? Why did he die? What was his music?

In doing so, the animated film promises to capture a fleeting period of creative freedom at a turning point in Latin American history in the 1960s and 1970s, when the region flourished, in novels (The Boom), in films (Brazil’s Cinema Novo ) and music (bossa nova).

All were thrown back, dispersed and exiled by the totalitarian regimes that had engulfed Latin America.

They Shot the Piano is sold by Film Constellation and distributed in France by Dulac Distribution and in the Benelux by Periscoop.

After years of conception and implementation, “They Shot the Piano Player” is also a typical passion project that can lead to an absolutely unique film.

When he wasn’t playing music, Tenório didn’t even know how to fry an egg, Trueba was told. But he sure could play the piano. A highlight at first sight of Annecy was simply the music of Tenório Jr., nimble fingers, every note clear, cascading, happy, jumbled. Audiences don’t need to know anything about jazz to appreciate its virtuosity.

Trueba, who has directed several musical films, such as 2000’s Latin jazz-themed “Calle 54,” first heard Tenorio many years ago.

“I was doing research to release an album and discovered piano music that I really loved. I thought the player must be very well known, but discovered a character I didn’t know at all,” Trueba told an audience in Annecy.

“At the same time, I also discovered that Tenorio Jr. had disappeared during the Argentine coup d’état. I started researching and became obsessed, totally obsessed for years.”

First, Trueba set out to interview friends, family, and people who had played with Tenorio for a documentary.

He considered a feature film, but rejected the idea. “There are great biopics, but I just couldn’t believe there was an actor playing Tenório.”

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They shot the piano player
Credit: Films Constellation

During his research, Trueba and designer/artist Javier Mariscal created Chico and Rita, a love story set in Havana’s music scene of the late 1940s and 1950s, loosely inspired by the life of Cuban pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdés. He was nominated for an Academy and Annie Award for Animated Feature in 2012 and won Best Animated Feature at the 2011 European Film Awards.

“Chico and Rita” opened Trueba’s eyes. “When a cartoon draws Charlie Parker, people believe the drawing,” he said. Animation would allow him to represent not only Tenório, but also his era, his music, the bossa nova Belle Époque.

“But at first I thought the idea was so crazy I didn’t tell my friends, not even my wife [Trueba’s career long producer Cristina Huete]said Trueba.

But Trueba couldn’t let go of his dream. A crucial decision was to join Tenório on several levels, so that the film has several cuts. It begins in 2009 in a New York bookstore when an American writer presents his latest book. It then flashes back to explain how he set out to write a book about bossa nova and ended up writing one about Tenorio Jr.

The film includes animated versions of the interviews. But when the interviewees start talking about the past, they act out their anecdotes in what Trueba calls “fictionalized documentary” scenes.

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Fernando Trueba
Courtesy of Jean-Paul Commin

The result, according to Trueba, is a film that works on several levels: “It’s a musical, but also a kind of political thriller and also a criminal investigation.”

Trueba immediately thought of Jeff Goldblum to speak to the journalist. Goldblum had starred in Trueba’s 1989 Goya Award-winning Best Picture winner El sueño del mono loco and remained a friend. Goldblum is also a gifted jazz pianist.

“I just love working with Fernando on everything and talking to him,” Goldblum said, voice engraved and polite as ever, in a video broadcast in Annecy.

“He and I both love music. I think ‘They Shot the Piano Player’ could be a really special, really, really good movie,” he added.

“He has the most original and personal voice in American cinema and is a great pianist who is so attuned to the story. It was a wonderful reunion for me,” said Trueba in Annecy.

How to animate the film is another matter. For the interviews, the film uses “a realistic palette, colors from everyday life, everything clean, shirts ironed,” said Javier Mariscal at Work in Progress.

As for the anecdotes of the interviewees, the animation style of these “clouds,” as Mariscal calls them, is close to Mariscal’s signature style, but varies from one flashback to another. Bossa Nova Rio scenes are sensual, flooded with light during the day and clubbing with vibrant colors at night. Scenes at Argentina’s ESMA torture center are dark and colorless.

Recording sessions highlight the individual players, their faces contorted with concentration or lit with happiness. The lighting can be luminous.

“Colors help bring emotion to music,” Mariscal said in Annecy.

They Shot the Piano Player is Trueba’s passion project. However, his passion has proven to be contagious.

Les Films d’Ici Méditerranée of France, Animanostra of Portugal, Submarine of the Netherlands and Producciones Tondero of Peru are producing the feature film with Huete as lead producer at Fernando Trueba Producciones.

https://variety.com/2022/film/global/fernando-trueba-jeff-goldblum-tenorio-jr-1235297843/ Fernando Trueba’s “They Shot the Piano Player”: Revealed in Annecy

Charles Jones

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