Chico & Rita

A love letter to the Jazz age. A tale of thwarted love and ambition. A Spanish/UK co-production that manages to capture the big emotions and themes of the post-war era in a sumptuous animated and scored film. It should, if there is any justice, do well in the box-office. Certainly there was a sizeable audience when I saw this bitter-sweet romance.

Havana, present day, Chico works as a shoe-shiner for a living. After work he goes home and turns on the radio to hear an old song he composed. This sparks off a series of memories from his youth in Havana in 1948 and his subsequent travels, tours and the tragic romantic and career situations that have lead him to his present fortunes.

(Warning: This trailer gives away WAAAAY too much but shows off the animation.).

This film, directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando, finds its nearest companion in The Triplets of Belleville as the directors and animators manage to capture the spirit of times gone by – in this case, the post World War 2 jazz world.

Indeed, Chico & Rita is made individual and important because it reveals a world under-explored by film and animation. Specifically, the jazz world and the impact that Cuban musicians had on their American contemporaries and the popularity of the culture across boundaries and borders.

It shows the effect of Jazz on Cuban history, popular amongst French intellectuals, Yankees and Batista, banned under Castro. It revels in the decadence and the beauty and skill of the culture as well as the bitter ironies that faced jazz performers in terms of the racism. Indeed, it doesn’t back out from showing the hypocrisy and racism and goes a step further by partially revealing the alternative world that black people created for themselves.

Key figures and points in history are alluded to or shown briefly: Josephine Baker, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Louis Armstrong, sure. They are there but it was the mere sight of Thelonious Monk with his hat, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie with his bent trumpet and the music… the mere sight and sound of them raised a smile for me as the artists are lovingly captured. It even had me nodding or laughing at jazz in-jokes, perhaps my sub-conscious provoking me into a physical response in order to air my cool cat credentials because, as everyone knows, it’s hip to be cool, cool to be hip. Not that I’ve ever been in a cat-house.

However, the characters and politics never intrude on the story of Chico and Rita, they just enrich the world the characters to inhabit. History is like a wave to ride the two get swallowed up in and spat back out onto the gorgeous Caribbean island of Cuba which looks so beautiful.

You will get a lot more out of this if you know the major figures of jazz but even if you don’t the world is so complete and vibrant, the songs so beautiful that even when the lyrics went un-translated and what little Spanish I still remember failed me I still find myself enraptured by the emotions. And this film enraptured me leading to a beautiful finale.

The voice acting is impeccable with Bebo Valdes and Xor Ona voicing and singing Chico respectively whilst Limara Meneses performs as Rita. Combined with the beautiful animation, these characters feel like they are imbued with SOUL as opposed to being mere abstractions or types. In short, I cared about their romance.

See it while it is still in cinemas.

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