Salsa Caliente

Sexy, simmering 'Chico & Rita' dances to a Latin drummer

Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba's buoyant, brooding Chico & Rita is a cool, spicy salsa of love, jealousy, politics, betrayal, and fame. It pulsates with glamorous images, sensual yearning, vintage cars and nonstop music in a sprawling romantic drama of sex, drugs, and bebop jazz that stretches from pre-revolutionary Cuba to Broadway, Hollywood, Paris, Las Vegas, and finally back again to the Cuba of Fidel Castro.

To call this exotic whirlwind of a movie animated is an understatement. But in this case, it's literally true. Nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year's Academy Awards, Chico & Rita was a surprise Spanish-language entry that went mano-a-mano against the likes of Puss In Boots and Rango. And as much as I adored Rango (which won), for sheer visual artistry, Chico & Rita deserved to dance away with the prize.

The film is a collaboration between Trueba (an Oscar-winner for Belle Epoch, awhile ago) and Spanish artist Javier Mariscal—comic book illustrator, furniture designer, and one-man graphic arts explosion. Mariscal's artwork here combines sun-splashed tropical vistas and intricate cityscapes with moody, chiaroscuro character drawings as the emotional drama plays out. Co-directed by Trueba, Mariscal and Tono Errando, from a script by Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, the movie is a vibrant celebration of music, life and romance.

As the story begins, elderly Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) is shining shoes in a relatively modern-day Havana; the streets are full of 50-year-old American cars scrupulously kept in running order, and Rasta-haired teens listen to rap on similarly resuscitated boomboxes. But alone in his shabby room, cued by an old song on the radio, Chico is swept back to 1948, when Havana was full of frivolous American tourists, and he was a footloose young piano player hungry for life.
Chico and his buddy, Ramon (Mario Guerra) are out with a couple of blonde American girls one night when they happen upon an open-air bar and dance floor. On the spot, Chico is smitten with the sultry-voiced band singer, Rita. (Cuban actress Limara Meneses provides her speaking voice, but Rita's dark, luscious singing is done international recording star and second-generation Buena Vista Social Club member Idania Valdes.)

Rita is less than impressed by Chico. But later, at a ritzy nightclub, he impulsively volunteers to sit in for the absent piano player for Woody Herman's orchestra, only to discover the piece is Igor Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto." An improv artist, Chico doesn't read music, but he bluffs his way through anyway, earning Rita's respect. After hours at the club, he introduces her to Bebop, playing the piano as she dances around in a swirl of simpatico delight. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

But Fate plays fast and loose with the couple. Jealous lovers, smooth operators, and a wealthy impresario come between them. Whisked off to New York City, Rita becomes the toast of Broadway. Chico sells his piano and follows her; penniless in a New York winter, he and Ramon warm themselves in basement dives grooving to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Chico and Rita briefly reconnect (making out in her pink Caddy convertible in the middle of an intersection as traffic honks and sputters all around them), but her manager sends Chico off to tour Europe with Dizzy Gillespie's band while Rita goes to Hollywood. The pattern of steamy love scenes, misunderstandings, passionate reunions, and cruel separations continues right up to the bittersweet, but oh-so-satisfying final frame.

There's music galore, from street corner girl groups and Coke bottle percussionists in Havana to the lovely theme song Chico writes for Rita (composed by musical director Bebo Valdez, who also contributes Chico's singing voice). More famous musicians appear in the film as Latin jazz sweeps the U.S., including ill-fated Afro-Cuban drummer Chano Pozo, whose untimely real-life demise over a drug deal gone south is here witnessed by Chico and Ramon.
And between the sights, music and flavor of prosperous Old Havana, the pulsing neon jungles of Broadway and Vegas, and the atmospheric interiors of smoky jazz clubs and massive Art Deco halls, the film is a delicious visual treat. Prepare to be swept up in its irresistible rhythms.

??? 1/2 (out of four)
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With the voices of Limara Meneses and Eman Xor Oña. Written by Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and Fernando Trueba. Directed by Tono Errando, Javier Mariscl, and Fernando Trueba. A Luma Films release. Not rated. 94 minutes.

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