“They Shot the Piano Player” – A False Documentary on a True Music (and Political) Story

They Shot the Piano Player

Sometimes, the best true stories are fiction, at least in part. That is the case of They Shot the Piano Player, the animated false documentary where Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal tell the story of life and disappearance of the Brazilian piano virtuoso Tenório Jr.

The film portrays Jeff Harris (interpreted by Jeff Goldblum), a New York music journalist who embarks on the research to write a book about fifty years of bossa nova. He travels to Rio de Janeiro to scavenge for old records and interview musicians, and there he finds the story of a genius who revolutionized samba-jazz (the instrumental aspect of bossa nova) and then disappeared. The story hooks him, and his book’s topic changes.

Our film subject, Francisco Tenório Jr. was a young student in the 1960s who played piano at night in music bars, especially in Beco das Garrafas, one of the cradles of bossa nova. Eventually, Tenório dropped medicine school and devoted his life to music.

Betting on his instrument paid off (though he went through economic hardships) as he got to play with some of the greatest musicians at the time: Milton Nascimento, Gal Costa, Egberto Gismont, Vinicius de Moraes, and Toquinho, amongst others.

In March 1976, Tenório went on tour with Vinicius de Moraes and Toquinho, and on the night of the 18th, he left the hotel where he was staying with his lover (some say he went to buy medicine for her; others that he left for cigarettes or sandwiches) and never came back. His remains were never found.

It took ten years before any information of what had happened to him came out. The silence was finally broken when Claudio Vallejos, a former member of the Argentinean Army’s secret service, revealed in an interview that Tenório had been kidnapped “by mistake.” The Argentinean and Brazilian military regimes murdered him together as part of what was later known as Operation Condor.

They Shot the Piano Player brings to light this story, the legend of a musician who helped revolutionize Brazilian music and, consequently, music’s history. By murdering him, the Argentinean and Brazilian regimes didn’t just end his life but also pushed his music into oblivion — even for specialized music connoisseurs, as I realized when I reached out to colleagues to comment on Tenório’s life and music.

They Shot the Piano Player poster

In a move critiqued by some, Fernando Trueba made an animated movie instead of a live-action one using the footage he gathered during the almost 150 hours he spent interviewing people who met Tenório directly. However, this style decision allows Trueba to create a more cohesive narrative: one that makes us fly back in time to see Ella Fitzgerald singing in Beco das Garrafas and listen in present time to Caetano Veloso talking about the friend he still misses. By doing so, They Shot the Piano Player allows us to have an emotive and historically accurate portrait of the music scene and the way political and military decisions (by Latin American countries and by the US) changed the continent’s culture forever.

Actually, the false documentary’s story is so well structured that, at first, I thought Jeff Harris was a real journalist. I looked for the book he supposedly had written about Tenório and found a comic book version of the film, now available in bookstores.

Trueba says in several interviews that he didn’t intend to give a history lesson when he embarked on the film’s production, but he does take the time to prove culture and politics are always closer than they seem.

They Shot the Piano Player joins a good script, an interesting aesthetic proposal, and fantastic music – it is worth your time, revealing a hidden history and a life – and its outstanding talent – cut short.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Opening at the Angelika in NY and the Royal in LA on February 23, 2024, followed by a national rollout in theaters.

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