Judge Russell Engebretson wishes you a Merry Mambo and a Happy Babalu.
Love is a song you never forget.
With Chico & Rita, director Fernando Trueba revisits the sound of Latin jazz to which he paid homage in his well received 2000 documentary, Calle 54. Trueba's modestly budgeted, primarily hand-drawn feature was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Film in 2012, ultimately losing out to Gore Verbinski's computer animated Rango.
The story begins as an old Cuban drifts into a dream of his youth. The scene is a small Havana nightclub circa 1948, and it's love at first listen, when piano player Chico (Eman Xor Oña) hears Rita (Limara Meneses) sing a sultry bolero. After a couple of flirtatious brush-offs, Rita spends a night of club hopping, zooming about town on a Vespa with Chico, his friend Ramón (Mario Guerra), and a couple of slumming American girls.
Following a night of passionate romance, one of Chico's old girlfriends forces her way into the room and thoroughly destroys the romantic mood by verbally abusing the young lovers and physically assaulting Rita, who finally stalks out of the apartment in a huff declaring she never wants to see Chico again. However, the lovers are reunited, after Ramón convinces Rita to pair up with Chico in a musical talent contest, which they handily win.
From Havana to NYC, Paris, Hollywood, and Las Vegas, the remainder of the story follows the ups and downs of their musical careers and brief but intense romantic encounters.
As the reader will no doubt gather from this brief synopsis, Chico & Rita's story arc is a predictable mishmash of romantic drama and rags-to-riches fantasy. The great majority of musicians never attain fame or fortune, let alone reach the astronomical heights of celebrity depicted in the film. I suppose a realistic take on the life of an average working band would induce restless depression in most viewers (probably why the generally fine One Trick Pony immediately sank into obscurity), but the banal Hollywood template is a serious flaw that almost sinks the film. I say almost because the animation and Latin music go a long way toward plucking Chico & Rita from its cloying morass of sentimentality.
The Mambo, Bolero, Be-Bop, and clave-based Afro-Cuban jazz numbers soar. Bebo Valdez's masterful piano playing anchors the film to that juncture in time (the 1940s and '50s) when traditional Cuban, dance music was re-imagined into the Latin jazz form. Anyone with the slightest interest in this style of music will be delighted with the clarity and sparkle of the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio audio track.
As for the animation, the characters are rendered in a flat, modern style that shows minimal detail in faces and clothing, but still manages to convey a graceful naturalness of movement. For example, the night club dance scenes near the beginning are impressive for their fluidity and realism. The animation truly shines in its detailed cityscapes (the meticulously reproduced aerial view of 1940s Havana is amazing). The over-the-shoulder shot of Chico riding his motorbike down the streets of Havana is packed with the detailed sights and sounds of pre-Castro Cuba, and (according to the filmmakers) was painstakingly reproduced from archival sources.
The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encode is a bit on the bright side, particularly in the daylight Cuban scenes, but not enough to detract from the overall fine high definition image. The picture is free of bleeding (Rita's red dress stays solidly within its outlines), and replete with shadow detail. Colors pop off the screen with an almost 3D effect, from the snowy blue-gray New York City landscapes to the sun drenched vistas of Havana. The Chico & Rita (Blu-ray) transfer is truly a joy to behold.
New Video offers us a decent slate of supplemental material. Alongside and audio commentary and 24-minute making-of featurette, there are physical extras: a glossy, full color booklet that reproduces several pages of the Chico & Rita comic book; a CD of the original soundtrack; and a standard defintition DVD copy for the high-def deprived.
The commentary by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal covers the music and animation, with no discussion of Cuban politics. The name of Fidel Castro is nowhere to be heard, and the ousted ruler Batista is only mentioned as being forced to flee Cuba. The general attitude of the picture and commentary is that Cuba was a capitalistic paradise while under the rule of the corrupt Batista regime. The country was indeed a playground of casinos, nightclubs, and bordellos for well-to-do stateside tourists, and a comfortable place to live for the Cuban elites. There are a few jabs at Castro's Cuba, but overall the story is too much a Hollywood fantasy to be a political diatribe. In any case, the discussion is informative for those who want to delve deeper into the music, but not essential for the average viewer.
The CD is a great extra, well-mastered with none of the terrible brick-wall compression that has become the hallmark of most modern compact discs. Because it's an original soundtrack, a few of the tracks are very short—little more than musical cues—but there are plenty of full-length, hot, swinging Latin jazz tunes for your listening pleasure.
If only the story were better, I could give the film a glowing recommendation. As is, the music and animation do all the heavy lifting to carry Chico & Rita across the finish line.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
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