A lush, vibrant film about Cuban musicians struggling to maintain love as their careers pull them apart, Chico and Rita hits two buttons for me. Firstly, I love the animation style, which employs simple broad lines to describe human motion. The eloquence of line is one of this film’s great successes, not just in depicting its characters but also in rendering dazzling cityscapes of Havana, New York, Hollywood, Paris and Las Vegas. Secondly, it’s a film about jazz that speaks not just to the history of the music, but also to the way it has been portrayed previously onscreen.
The plot is very familiar. A feckless jazz musician falls in love with a talented singer. Their romance is fuelled by a fulfilling stage partnership. However, personal and professional jealousies tear them apart. The jazz musician languishes self-pityingly, as his ex-lover’s star rises. After many years, they meet once more. The film ends on a bittersweet note, the happiness of their reunion tempered by the loss of youthful passion. I could be describing Scorsese’s New York New York.
The film sometimes fails to play interesting changes on this old familiar song. I found myself struggling through the opening sequences, where the first attraction between Chico and Rita was written so broadly that it was hard to care what was happening. Luckily, things really pick up in the middle section, when the action moves to New York.
In jazz films, NY is often the Bad Place, where pushers get you high and cops beat on you (see ‘Round Midnight and Bird). It’s nice, then, that Chico and Rita is eager to convey the excitement of the city, and the buzz felt by our Cuban protagonists as they explore the emergent bebop scene. There are some lovely “cameos” from Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster and Thelonious Monk (and, elsewhere in the film, Chucho Valdes, Tito Puente, Chano Pozo, Nat King Cole and Marlon Brando). These appearances by famous men are brief, and all the better for that. There’s none of the hand-wringing reverence that mars Bird.
I loved the sequences set in Paris. Seeing Diz and Chico play Caveau de la Huchette was a thrill, as it’s a joint that Dolly Clackett and I have danced in. And there’s a nice touch as Chico queues at the cinema, a poster for Vertigo reminding us of the Hitchcocko-Hawksians cinephiles of the Left Bank.
The movie comes apart a little towards the end, as it shifts focus from Rita to Chico’s Buena Vista Social Club-style rediscovery. By privileging one protagonist over the other in this way, there’s a sense of over-balancing. The admirable delicacy of emotion maintained so far gives way to coarse sentimentality, at its worse in an extraneous final montage.
These problems of narrative aside, Chico and Rita is one of the most interesting and successful of jazz films. The music itself is gorgeous, beautifully integrated into the action, gently leading us through the lives of its players. There’s even a dream ballet featuring Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart (!), reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s choreographed interludes in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. The love and craft that has gone into this film radiates, staying with you long after the lights have gone up.