They Shot the Piano Player

Sadly, We Shot the Piano Player doesn’t currently have any streaming offers available.

Twenty years ago, Spanish director Fernando Trueba, who co-directed “They Shot the Piano Player,” stumbled onto the work of Brazilian keyboardist Francisco Tenorio Júnior in a record store. He vanished in 1976 while on tour in Buenos Aires after briefly leaving his hotel to grab sandwiches, and Trueba was so enthralled with the music that he looked up Tenorio online to see what else he’d done. To his horror, he discovered that he hadn’t done anything in nearly thirty years. Viewers won’t be shocked to hear that Tenorio most certainly “disappeared”—that is, that the authoritarian government of Argentina was responsible, given the details of the time and place.

Maybe not because of anything he said or did in particular (he was a touring musician, not a public activist), but rather because he was in the wrong location at the wrong time (one explanation regarding his demise is that he broke a curfew that he was unaware of).

In interviews, Trueba has stated that he didn’t decide on animation as the film’s format right away, but rather came to it after working on the 2010 animated romantic drama “Chico and Rita” with musician Javier Marsical, who has collaborated with him on a number of projects, including record albums (Trueba produced the excellent Latin jazz documentary “Calle 54” in addition to other things).

Tenorio’s narrative wasn’t well-documented, and Trueba wasn’t interested in having two hours of people sit on seats for the duration of the film. He wished to be able to picture Tenorio going about his life and performing music. A journalist serves as the guide in this flamboyantly colorful, animated widescreen mashup that combines elements of a political primer, a music documentary, and a biography akin to “Citizen Kane.”

The movie fails in the latter area, or maybe more accurately, it confines itself. Along with being an incredible jazz pianist, Jeff Goldblum also plays an invented Brooklyn-based writer named Jeff Harris. He tells the book-signing crowd about how he learned about Tenorio while researching a book on bossa nova music and how he ended up traveling throughout Latin America to interview friends, family, colleagues, and music experts about the pianist’s life, career, and disappearance. It is not difficult to envision a more basic “documentary” version being put together using the same basic materials—which include Trueba’s twenty years of interviews with people discussing Tenorio.

Without the Jeff Harris persona—the music scene in Latin America in the 1970s, the emergence of dictatorship, the terrorist strategy of “disappearing” people, and other pertinent topics. (Seemingly, Trueba has occasionally substituted Goldblum’s audio for his own recordings of himself asking questions and answering interviewees.)

Nevertheless, Goldblum’s vocal delivery is humorous and genuine; he speaks like a jazz pianist, never quite hitting the note you’re expecting. Additionally, the story is able to jump between a variety of private places, just like it might in a traditional documentary, thanks to the concept of using a “interviewer” who is essentially Trueba’s stand-in. Massive amounts of information are packed into every frame by Trueba and Marsical.

Trueba has quietly but firmly amassed one of the most stylistically varied filmographies in international cinema throughout the years. Once again, this is an excellent submission. If at all possible, try to see it on a large screen. And play it loud if you are unable to.

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