There’s a saying that in an SF story, the science should be one of the characters. Well, that’s also true in a jazz story: in any film about music, the music needs to be so present, so powerful, that it ends up being one of the characters itself. Happily, Chico and Rita gets that right–along with a lot of other things.
It’s a tragedy, of course, but a tragedy of a specific kind. You could come at it from any number of angles, and of course the film itself suggests some of them: the opening suggests the tragedy of the arts in a repressive regime. There’s tragedy of violence in America (in the scene where Chano Pozo is murdered, though more about that in a bit). The tragedy of a couple who loved one another, but could not be together… and who were torn apart by a jealous businessman.
But the film is also all about the gorgeous sensuousness of music. For me, music is very often something I interface with mentally–in my intellect, in my feelings–but the film shows how music is also very sensual. The many scenes early on that feature Rita’s unabashed dancing drive that point home.
The film, is, also, about jazz, not just as a music, but as a social and cultural phenomenon. I can’t help but feel like, as troubling as some of the things visible in pre-revolutionary Cuba were–there’s a clear sense of white tourists visiting and exploiting the black locals, and not just sexually but also in other ways–but there is also an undeniable and a truly vibrant cosmopolitanism that beats in the heart of Cuba, in Havana. The Americans speak English, the Cubans speak Spanish, but everyone seems to speak the language of jazz… and when Castro’s regime cuts off America, and (at least in the film) denigrates jazz as imperialist music, it is attacking that cosmopolitanism… and that joy and liveliness.
(The idea of jazz being the transnational language of freedom is, of course, not new, nor is it unproblematic. See my review of Penny Marie Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up The World: Jazz Ambassadors Play The Cold War for one take on all of that.)
At its heart, Chico and Rita is a love story, though a double one: there’s the romance between Chico and Rita, but also the romance of jazz itself, and in a sense one gets the feeling that, if you can’t be with the one you love, then your relationship with jazz might just see you through till you can. The film is loaded with little references and cameos-in-animated-form of all sorts of figures, most of them very well-done indeed: the appearance of Dizzy Gillespie in Paris, beret and all, is priceless:
… and the Ben Webster also felt spot on in terms of other footage I’ve seen of him. (I will say, however, that I was disappointed they animated Charlie Parker playing a tenor sax. Yes, Bird did play tenor sometimes, and that is of more historical interesting than most people realize–some people have argued Sonny Rollins’ early approach to the tenor was deeply influenced by how Bird played the instrument–but like Diz’s bent-up trumpet, Bird’s alto is more iconic, and also what he was almost always playing at the time when the film was set.
It’s also sad to know that they fictionalized the death of Chano Pozo. It’s a troubling scene in the film, as it could be taken to be representative of any number of things, from the constant danger black people (including black artists) faced in America, to the violent ruptures of the so-called “American dream” which, for the Cubans who went to New York to play jazz ins the 1940s, had nothing to do with white picket fences: it was bebop dreams, or cu-bop, as the Cubans called their take on the style. All of that is powerful stuff, but why warp the life story of a real (and important) person–someone whom Dizzy regarded as part of a watershed moment in his own musical development, and who arguably was important for the musical development of America as a whole–for the sake of drama? They ought to have used another fictional character, instead, I think.
Still, films are not history books, and perhaps a little poetic license should be allowed them, I suppose. It’s hard to criticize a film that is so in love with the music, and also so intelligent about the question of race in America. Race in America is obviously a major theme of the film, and inescapable, but at the same time, the movie doesn’t constantly harp on it. Rather, it just tells the story as if race matters, which makes the few moments when it does come to the fore that much more powerful–like when Pozo tells Chico and Ramón he was supposed to be touring with Dizzy Gillespie down south, but for the incredible racism of the region, and explains (because presumably as Cubans they don’t know) that blacks are forced to eat in different restaurants, use different bathrooms, and so on); or like, when Rita has the final, climactic emotional breakdown that ends her career, she speaks movingly of the life of black artists in America–of having to stay in a small, cheap hotel outside of town because the hotel where she performs nightly will not allow her to stay the night.
And about that scene, the late Roger Ebert really missed the point when he described this as, “… she blows a Vegas gig by being drunk onstage.” Anyone who knows anything about jazz knows that, yes, substance abuse was an important and rampant problem in that world… but it’s not her drunkenness that blows her career: it’s the fact she speaks out about the racism of America, about these indignities I’ve just mentioned, that one white man (presumably the club manager) says to her agent, “She’s finished.” Which is to say: the film suggests–and I think rightly–that the substance abuse problems so rampant in the heyday of jazz seem likely to be linked to–or a direct reaction to–the black experience in America at the time. (Self-medication, escape, and so forth.) She doesn’t screw up because she’s drunk: she’s drunk because she’s gotten screwed up, and she’s gotten screwed up in part by coming to America and then experiencing the sting in the tail of her dream come true… what’s more, without the man she loves, who has effectively been torn from her by… yes, her white manager, Ron.
Which is to say, the film is also political, and not just at those moments. It’s political with regard to aesthetics, art, sexuality, and everything tied to the music that is interwoven with all of life: Rita’s extremely sensual dancing is political. Her unabashed sexuality (and her shameless, joyful nudity with Chico, onscreen) is political. There’s even a politics to Chico’s “discovery” by a younger generation, in the context of the fashionable post-Buena Vista Social Club craze for old Cuban music, when people I knew who would never listen to jazz and openly regarded it as square and old-fashioned, were suddenly and hypocritically all gaga for this stuff. And when I say that is political, I mean not only in terms of being a critique of the repression of the arts under Castro…
Chico and Rita doesn’t seem to be based on the life of any two real people in particular, though certainly bits of and pieces of the life of the musician who wrote the score, Bebo Valdés, seem to be woven into the story. (And there is a dedication to him at the close of the film.) But in a way, it seems to be inspired by the collective life of jazz, and of those people who made it, who contributed it to the world–not just to America, but to Cuba, to Paris, to all the places we see onscreen, and also all the places where we see it onscreen, because that music is a gift to all of us, and one produced under often appalling conditions.
Like I say, it’s a love story, and not just the love of a man and a woman–though, heartbreaking and, yeah, touching as that story is–but also the story of the kind of love that drives people to keep picking up the horn, to keeping coming back to the keyboard. There seems to be a message that, if you keep doing it with your whole heart, neither love nor the music can truly die, and maybe there is hope for it to bloom, again, someday… if you keep that hope alive inside you, faithfully.
Wonderful movie. I recommend it highly.