They Shot the Piano Player: Unique Style

I was curious about this film when I heard about it, mostly because it features Jeff Goldblum as a journalist. After watching the animated celebration of the Latin musical movement the Bossa Nova, I was stunned by the unique style of the docudrama as it uncovers the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of young Brazilian virtuoso Tenorio Jr. 

“They Shot the Piano Player” is an adult animated docudrama film directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal. Centered around the real-life disappearance and presumed murder of Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior in 1976, the film stars Jeff Goldblum as an American music journalist investigating Tenório’s case. The film’s soundtrack includes music by João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Vinicius de Moraes and Paulo Moura, with some of the musicians also appearing in the voice cast as themselves testifying about Tenório’s importance and influence as part of Goldblum’s investigation. It has a completely unique style of presenting the drama surrounding Tenório’s disappearance and celebrates the musical movement of Bossa Nova. 

What makes this film so unique to me is the way animation is blended with the real life drama of Tenório’s life, his virtuosic talent and the loss of that genius to the totalitarian regimes in Latin America during the 60’s and 70’s. While Tenório is not the only artist lost, he is perhaps the most dramatic and chilling example. While the animated style does help to emphasize the beautiful and upbeat musical style of Bossa Nova, it also allows for some of the figures of the time to be interviewed despite age and health. While it is presented in story format, the documentary is one of the best I’ve seen. The animation in its bold style complements the musical style of the Bossa Nova as well, enhancing the sense of a bright and joyful style of music. 

Much like many other documentaries, the film uses a variety of sources from the time to tell the story of the origins of the musical movement. Bossa Nova changed the history of music and that it relayed well in the interviews with musicians. The film also delves into the real life disappearance of Tenório. It also explores the reactions of his friends, his family, the very real loss of the father and husband and how that impacted those who knew the gentle gifted man. We are even given a direct interview of the time with one of Tenório’s best friends, Vinicius de Moraes sharing the impact of his friend’s disappearance and most likely death.

In addition to the history of the Bossa Nova, the film also gives an overview of the history of the totalitarian regimes, the key figures involved, and how much was hidden at the time. The documentary explores how the information in later years came to light and how many individuals fought for the truth to emerge so that families would have some kind of resolution over the fate of their loved ones. The horrors of the time, the torture and imprisonment are well documented and shown in this film. And what makes it so haunting is how beautiful Tenório’s music truly was and how much potential he still had remaining at the time of his disappearance. Everyone interviewed considered him a genius. 

Jeff Goldblum’s performance as the journalist tracking down the information on Tenório is understated and brilliantly portrayed. He is a voice allowing the truth to emerge and his acting is in aid of documenting the story of Tenório and Bossa Nova. He shines a light on the wonderful music of the time, shares beautiful compositions and presents a beautiful memorial to a truly talented soul without distracting from this haunting yet celebratory docudrama. 

If you like unique presentations and documentaries, you will appreciate the unique style of this animated tribute to Tenório and Bossa Nova, celebrating the music with beautiful compositions, an understated performance by Jeff Goldblum, and a story of a gentle talented soul. The animation is compelling but the story of Tenório is truly the heart of this film. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 performances. 

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