Spain’s “Chico & Rita” was one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 Oscars by winning a nomination for best animated feature. In the 11 years since the Oscars introduced an award for Best Animated Feature, the category has been dominated by children’s movies, often with computer-animated pandas, penguins and ogres at their center. This one a little different.
The film depicts a nearly operatic romantic tragedy, involving a lifelong affair of the heart between two Havana musicians telling a distilled version of the 20th century history of jazz in about 90 minutes.. With irresistible Latin jazz, the animated feature captures seductive pre-Castro Cuba as it tells the story of a singer Rita, a promising young singer with a smoky voice and Chico, a piano man and their on and off romance over the years as they rise to fame. The attraction is strong and mutual, not to mention powerfully erotic, especially for a cartoon. But personal and professional jealousies intervene as the story moves forward, and as its protagonists’ advancing careers take them from Cuba to New York, Paris and Las Vegas, swept up by forces that alternately throw them together and keep them apart. The story is told in flashback from Chico’s current lonely life, and Rita’s equally cheerless existence. A subtext of race — Chico and Rita, both Cubans of African descent, must also deal with discrimination and exploitation as they pursue fame, fortune and artistic fulfillment – lends the film a somber grounding in reality.
It begins in Havana of 1948 in the pre-Castro years when rich Americans jetted down for entertainment, and Havana was a hotbed of jazz and Afro-Cuban music, where luxurious clubs, casinos and hotels have created a Caribbean entertainment mecca, mostly controlled by American gangsters and corporations.
There are two journeys here: Rita is a shooting star, soon heading to New York alone with a record contract. Though her vocal chops get her there, her beauty soon has Hollywood calling. Chico is making a name for himself too. The New York club circuit is his ticket out of Cuba.Their mutual problem is that Chico is unfaithful by nature, and although Rita is the woman he loves, when he’s not with the one he loves, he loves the one he’s with. Rita is two-timed once too often and sets off on her own — a mistake, because when they’re together, they have a taste of stardom, and when apart, a tendency to self-destruct.
In a fluid scene – in one night Chico (who hasn’t got a gig tonight, so he’s out on the town hitting the clubs) gets his first glimpse of Rita, sidling into a spotlight, closing her eyes and purring “Besame Mucho” into a mic at an open-air club. Instantly smitten, Chico follows Rita to the Tropicana Club. The owners piano man is sick, and when Chico is recruited to fill the empty piano stool, it’s clear how talented he is, and in no time at all, he and Rita team up to win a talent contest on a radio station and a lucrative contract. They even have a hit record, masterminded by a breezy con man named Ramon, who dedicates himself to managing them. Life takes them to New York and a hit record, but the faithless Chico loses Rita to the company of a slickster Yankee named Ron, who gets her a few good bookings before she blows a Vegas gig by being drunk onstage.
“Chico & Rita” is an animated valentine to Cuba and its music. Rita’s songs are performed by Cuban singer Idania Valdés, the daughter of Buena Vista Social Club’s percussionist Amadito Valdés. Chico and Rita also mingle with real-life legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and the great Cuban conga player Chano Pozo, a crucial figure in the era’s mixing of styles and genres. Pozo died a violent death in Harlem in 1948, an event that injects a jolt of surreal gangster brutality into “Chico & Rita.”
The movie was directed by Fernando Trueba, a filmmaker responsible for the 2000 documentary on Latin/Cuban-jazz “Calle 54”; Javier Mariscal, a Spanish artist and designer; and Tono Errando. Mariscal also created the film’s bold modern look. Cuban musician Bebo Valdés, one of the featured players in “Calle 54,” handled the music, scoring and composing. He also stepped in to perform Chico’s musical numbers. Bebo Valdés, the great Cuban-born pianist, composer and bandleader (now 93) is also the physical and biographical inspiration for Chico. Valdés worked for years at Havana’s Tropicana Club, and both played for and orchestrated songs for the likes of Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and the many other jazz greats whose stylings grace the movie’s soundtrack.
Mariscal uses the color palette to set the mood as the star-crossed pair make their way through various cities: We see Havana in its pre-Fidel days of big spenders, New York in the heyday of jazz, Paris when foreign musicians were hot, Vegas in its early golden years. Architecture, neon signs and big classic American cars are all done with brio and abandon. Havana is rich with strong colors on an earthy background, New York is monochromatic, Paris is almost as gray, Hollywood is dry and desert bright, Las Vegas awash in neon and night.
“Chico & Rita,” is a reminder not only of the aesthetic vitality of hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation, but also of the form’s ability to provide entertainment and enlightenment for adults. A costume drama or a documentary would not have been as charming or as surprising.The music however, is really one of the stars of this film. It truly works to transport you to another place.
CHICO AND RITA: Directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando; written by Mr. Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón; animation direction by Manolo Galiana; edited by Arnau Quiles; music by Bebo Valdés, songs performed by Mr. Valdés, Idania Valdés, Estrella Morente, Freddy Cole, Jimmy Heath, Pedrito Martínez, Michael Phillip Mossman, Amadito Valdés, Germán Velazco, Yaroldi Abreu and Rolando Luna; produced by Christina Huete, Santi Errando, Martin Pope and Michael Rose; released by GKIDS and Luma Films. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH THE VOICES OF: Limara Meneses (Rita), Emar Xor Oña (Chico) and Mario Guerra (Ramón).