[TIFF 2023] THEY SHOT THE PIANO PLAYER -- Artistically Interesting Animated Film Lacks Narrative Momentum
Review by Sean Boelman
Brazilian filmmakers Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal’s first feature, Chico & Rita, was widely acclaimed by cinephiles. Their long-awaited next feature, They Shot the Piano Player has an undeniably interesting premise and the talent involved to pull it off, but comes up a bit short in the narrative department — even if it works artistically.
The movie tells the story of Brazilian piano player Francisco Tenório Júnior, who mysteriously disappeared during the rise of totalitarian regimes in Latin America. Our protagonist is a music journalist who takes a fascination in investigating Tenório’s disappearance, sending him on a journey through music and politics.
For a film that is effectively a political murder mystery set in the world of music, They Shot the Piano Player is shockingly inert. The pseudo-documentary framing device isn’t as cinematic as this story deserved. While it’s clear that Trueba and Mariscal wanted to avoid sensationalizing the story, they show so much restraint that the pacing drags.
There are definitely some interesting political undercurrents in They Shot the Piano Player, focusing on the political turmoil in many Latin American countries. Although the movie doesn’t dig particularly deeply into the nuances of these situations, it’s refreshing to see a film at least address these themes.
Of course, the biggest strength of the movie is its animation. Although the style doesn’t feel as visually innovative as Chico & Rita, it’s still very warm and scrappy in a way that few animated films are able to pull off. The use of color is particularly interesting, as one is likely used to seeing detective stories like this with a more muted and gray palette, not the colorful one we see here.
The movie is also boosted by a fantastic soundtrack — but one would expect no less from a film set in the Brazilian music world. There are plenty of great bossa nova tunes on the soundtrack. Trueba and Mariscal clearly have found a passion for this musical movement, and their collaboration with some of the most talented and recognized artists in the medium makes that evident.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie is that Jeff Goldblum’s performance feels rather phoned in. Goldblum is known for his eccentric personality in flair, so you would think he would be a perfect fit for this role as a music-journalist-turned-investigator. However, given that he is effectively serving as a narrator and interviewer, he simply isn’t given enough to work with.
They Shot the Piano Player is an impressive film aesthetically, but it’s a bit of a letdown in a narrative sense. It’s disappointing that the filmmakers weren’t able to make this mystery more compelling, but at least they made it interesting to look at.
They Shot the Piano Player is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.