Playing By Heart

If you’ve ever wanted to take a trip to Cuba but can’t afford the airfare, you can be transported back to the golden age of Latin jazz in the surprisingly human drama “Chico & Rita,” nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. With no competition from reigning champion Pixar, the category is up for grabs this year and “Chico & Rita” is a more than deserving nomination for the award.  

It’s a love story that crosses oceans and time periods, but it’s also about the power of music during our most difficult times. Centered on a young piano player extraordinaire Chico and his reluctant muse Rita, the two work with and against each other to pursue stardom in the world of Latin jazz. It’s a complicated relationship that doesn’t get off to the best start when a night of passion is interrupted. Rita vows to never see Chico again, but the laws of storytelling require such promises to be broken, so Chico sets off on a quest to find her. 

From Havana to Los Angeles to Paris, the two meet and separate, and sometimes Chico is successful and the two set off on their quests together. Other times a powerful force drives a wedge between the two, often in the form of a threatening music agent and even simply the distance from New York to Las Vegas.

All this has gone without mention of the film’s animation, which is a testament to the film’s humanist approach to its characters. It’d be easy to turn these simple drawings into equally simple archetypes — especially the beautiful Rita, who could have become the damsel-in-distress but is instead a proud, talented woman intent on realizing her potential for stardom. 

Because the animation is relatively simple, it allows the film to render art out of all its historical landmarks. Whether it’s a dingy Havana coffee shop, the New York skyline or the Hollywood sprawl, there is a romance that permeates the screen and the lives of our main characters. That’s not to say the animation is without flaws. In a few brief moments it can’t seem to keep up with the emotions of its characters, rendering a crying Rita that looks as straight-faced as ever, though such a minor issue is easily overlooked among all the other breathtaking sights and sounds.

Almost like a Latin jazz version of “Midnight in Paris” (minus the time travel), “Chico & Rita” follows the duo as they rub elbows with some of Latin jazz’s biggest stars. Chano Pozo, Tito Puente and Thelonious Monk all appear throughout the film and provide a historical legitimacy to our heroes. But for the readers not fluent in the history of Latin jazz, such knowledge is in no way essential to unlock the magic of the film. 

Throughout the film we get glimpses of segregation and revolution, although romance and music are always at the forefront. This keeps the story intimate, even when it spans the globe. These political moments flesh out the time period but could easily overpower the narrative if they were any more emphasized. Instead, we stay with our complex love story of these two talented musicians with terrible timing. Whether they will find success together or apart is the question at hand, and also what keeps this remarkable film engaging and beautiful. (A)

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