They Shot the Piano Player

They Shot the Piano Player is an animated docdrama that, ultimately, failed to connect with me.  But, to credit filmmakers Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba (co-directors of the Oscar-nominated animated film Chico & Rita), the movie’s efforts are certainly not wasted.

First, the choice of a narrator – Jeff Goldblum.  Goldblum usually has an interesting allure and cadence to his presence, and voiceover work isn’t new territory for the eccentric actor (The Prince of Egypt, Isle of Dogs, The Boss Baby: Family Business).  In They Shot the Piano Player, his role is more than just a guide for the viewer because, in fact, he’s being guided himself.  Goldblum plays fictional music journalist Jeff Harris, a writer who falls down a cultural rabbit hole while on an expedition to Rio de Janeiro to write about the Brazilian music scene.  Harris is sidetracked when he discovers the work of samba-jazz pianist Francisco Tenório Jr., and he can’t stop his curiosity with the musician’s sudden disappearance and, presumed, death. 

This is a fascinating mystery that is all too often hampered by Goldblum’s lack of subtlety.  A jazz musician himself, it’s easy to see why Goldblum would’ve been attracted to the project.  However, his voice is far too distracting.  When Harris is interviewing various experts on music and culture, Goldblum’s reactions step on the importance of what the subject is trying to express.

Also working against the interviewed talent is the film’s crude style.  The animation, a mix of rotoscoping and a peculiar visual interpretation of the freestyle nature of jazz, looks disconnected and slow;  like the images are trying to catch up to the movie’s tempo.  While the film looks faithful to print ads for bossa nova clubs, it’s a style that wares out its welcome.  However, fans of the music may feel differently.  While They Shot the Piano Player is meant to educate viewers on a specific type of music and culture, Mariscal and Trueba cater to those who have pre-investment in the subject matter.  As much as an outsider, like myself, tries to catch the wave of excitement that Harris is exhibiting with fellow Brazilians, their deep cuts are inaccessible to an extent (people are introduced, yet we don’t understand the degree of their importance).

They Shot the Piano Player tries to intrigue movie goers with history and mystery, but leaves some of its audience behind.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem okay with that.


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