Chico & Rita (GKIDS, NR)

Chico & Rita is not a musical in the traditional sense—no one sings in character, nor are the songs used to advance the plot—yet music pervades nearly every second of the film.




Animation is typically used to create the impossible (or at least the prohibitively expensive), things like fairy tales, futuristic sci-fi landscapes, or, in the case of most of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature Film, talking animals. But in fellow Oscar nominee Chico & Rita, directors Fernando Trueba (a previous Oscar winner for Belle Époque), Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando use animation to conjure up real people and places, albeit ones now lost to the sands of time: the bustling nightlife of pre-communism Havana, the smokin’ jazz scene of New York in the late 1940s, and scorching performances by a wide range of departed jazz giants
The journey through the beginnings of Latin jazz is not the point of the film, but rather serves as the backdrop for the operatic love story between Chico (Eman Xor Oña), an ambitious piano player, and Rita (Limara Meneses), a sultry singer. The year is 1948, and Chico and his pal Ramón (Mario Guerra) are out on the town with a pair of American girls when, in a rundown bar, they catch Rita cooing her way through “Bésame Mucho.” Chico is instantly smitten, but the already-spoken-for Rita isn’t having any. Later, Chico and Ramón sneak into the ritzy Tropicana Club and run into Rita again, shortly before Chico is dragged onstage for an impromptu performance as fill-in pianist for famed clarinetist Woody Herman. Rita is impressed; she brushes off her rich, American, and probably-mobbed-up boyfriend in favor of Chico, a decision that sends the pair on a madcap car chase through the streets of Havana that ends in passion. The next morning, Chico and Rita share a tender moment that develops into a gorgeous new song Chico names after his new paramour, but their bliss is short-lived as the arrival of his girlfriend Juana kinda spoils the mood. Despite her reservations, Rita is talked into teaming up with Chico by Ramón, and the pair wins a contest and scores a radio hit. It should be their big break, but a misunderstanding leads to a fight and Rita heads off to New York with Chico in hot pursuit. From there, it’s a whirlwind tour through the world of jazz of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s as Chico takes Ramón to catch an incendiary performance by Charlie Parker, witnesses the murder of Latin jazz giant Chano Pozo, and even scores a spot on a European tour with Dizzy Gillespie, all while Rita gradually grows in fame from in-demand lounge singer to out-and-out movie star.
All the while, Chico and Rita’s on-again-off-again romance continues to play out. It’s tempting to call them star-crossed lovers, but the pair are driven apart by their own shortcomings (his constant philandering, her stubbornness) as much as fate, even though the specter of institutionalized racism often looms large, both in Cuba (where the ritzy nightclubs allow blacks like Chico and Rita as entertainers or dates for rich Americans, but never as patrons) and in America (where, it probably goes without saying, things were much worse in the 1950s). Whenever the plot machinations threaten to bog things down in melodrama, though, the beautiful music—a mix of traditional tunes and original pieces by Cuban piano legend Bebo Valdés—compels the story forward.
Chico & Rita is not a musical in the traditional sense—no one sings in character, nor are the songs used to advance the plot—yet music pervades nearly every second of the film. On top of the countless scenes that take place during live music performances, there’s nary a single quiet moment of contemplation that doesn’t drive Chico to his piano, and even an argument between Chico and Rita outside her apartment is soundtracked by her neighbors banging away on instruments in the background. The music’s energy is infectious, and it’s what elevates what’s in many ways a fairly stereotypical love story into something truly engrossing.
The animation itself is hardly groundbreaking: the characters, in particular, are minimalist to a fault. The backgrounds, by contrast, are quite impressive, with Havana feeling truly “lived-in,” both its ostentatious nightclubs and its dirty slums. And, as with everything else in the film, the music elevates the animation, too: animated musical performances are usually simplified and clunky, yet in Chico & Rita, the animators used great care (and probably a bit of rotoscoping) to accurately capture the motion of the musicians, right down to hitting the correct keys on the piano. The same care was applied to Rita as she dances her way into Chico’s heart in the film’s early scene, setting her apart and giving her a clear appeal to both Chico and the audience.
Parents should note that while Chico & Rita is an animated film distributed by a company called “GKIDS,” it is not, in fact, kid-friendly, as there is a mild sex scene, a bit of tasteful nudity, and a moderate amount of harsh language. While the sex would likely guarantee the film an R rating, the film is likely suitable for most high schoolers, just not the younger set. | Jason Green
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