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They Shot the Piano Player.jpg

TIFF 2023: Despite Striking Animation, ‘They Shot the Piano Player’ is Never As Thrilling As The Story It’s Based On

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 11, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 11, 2023 |

They Shot the Piano Player.jpg

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, bossa nova became one of the defining sounds of modern music. Originating in Rio de Janeiro, it quickly spread across the world thanks to musicians like João Gilberto and songs such as ‘The Girl From Ipanema.’ One of the pioneering musicians of this period was Francisco Tenório Júnior, a pianist and virtuoso composer beloved by his contemporaries. You may not have heard of him because, in 1976, while touring Argentina, he went missing under mysterious circumstances.

They Shot the Piano Player blends animation, documentary, and drama to bring to life a cruelly forgotten part of South American musical and political history. Our point-of-view character is a music journalist voiced by Jeff Goldblum, who is a very Jeff Goldblum figure in all the ways you can imagine. He’s aloof, charming, and says ‘ah’ a lot. The film opens with this character at a book event at The Strand bookshop in New York narrating what’s to come, which he has compiled into a critically acclaimed doorstop. Through his interest in bossa nova, he finds his way to Tenório Jr., and quickly brings the focus of his work onto this man whose historical footprint is sparse.

All of this is certainly intriguing. The building blocks of a good story are here, and the decision to animate this docudrama is a refreshing change of pace for the crowded field of musical documentaries. Oscar-winning director Fernando Trueba and artist Javier Mariscal, who previously collaborated on the romantic drama Chico and Rita, seem like a good fit for this story. Yet, despite some striking animation, their approach seems a tad tame and disappointingly inert.

The animation is where things come to life. There’s a jittery, almost childlike quality to the style, which skips fluidity in favour of kinetic flair. Some details are more intricate than others. Characters’ eyebrows and arm hairs look like hasty scribbles while faces are simply designed yet highly evocative. Some moments are postcard-perfect while others meld into noir pastiches. It all comes to life when the action focuses on the music, with saxophones and pianos seeming to come to life of their own volition. What it ends up feeling like is a loop of movement, not unlike the ways that those countless lo-fi world music playlists on YouTube use a few frames to illustrate hours of beats. If nothing else, it will make you want to buy a bunch of bossa nova compilation albums.

The story here is fascinating if fraught. Tenório Jr. was a genius musician and family man who was kidnapped by agents of the Argentinian dictatorship while in the country with his band and clandestine girlfriend. This was a time of total political upheaval across South America, with dictatorships and military coups dominating half the continent (with a hell of a lot of support from the U.S. government of the time.) What interest did they have in a mere pianist who had no active involvement in political causes or any reason to be declared a problem by the state? There are no answers here, probably because history has no neat explanation for what happened to Tenório and countless others. They Shot the Piano Player is intensely respectful of this difficult era, spending much time not only with Tenório’s family but within the walls of the building where Argentinian agents tortured accused dissidents. The filmmakers do get a surprising amount of mileage out of a figure without referring to any contemporary interviews or footage. This is clearly a portrait of a highly respected man. Yet the film is clearly more interested in Tenório than the awful circumstances that overwhelmed his legacy. There’s room for much more context but it’s evidently not their passion.

The Goldblum of it all is also a major error. I get it. Sometimes you need a famous American to get your artsy foreign project off the ground, and Goldblum is a pianist with a well-documented love of jazz music. That oft-memed nerd spark he possesses has powered more than a few mediocre flicks. Here, however, he just doesn’t fit in with the world of They Shot the Piano Player. The naturalness of these real-life interview subjects talking to an actor playing a role (and one who seems bored at times with the material) never feels equally matched. It makes you wonder why they didn’t go full Waltz with Bashir with this story.

It’s always a shame when startling aesthetics are not matched to sturdy storytelling, especially when the material presents itself with such immense opportunity for creative exploration. However, They Shot the Piano Player does succeed in one key area: it introduces you to Tenório Jr. and makes you eager to hear the music that made the man.

They Shot the Piano Player held its Canadian Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It currently does not have a release date but will be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.