‘They Shot the Piano Player’ Film Review: Vibrant Animation Gives Way to Uneven Story

Mar 10, 2024

As a medium, film gives audiences a chance to explore stories and characters they might not normally gravitate toward. Much like food, film brings us together in unique ways of life that are intrinsic to human nature: its vibrancy in color, its sharp contrast in culture, and its strength in language. Combining those specific elements is a challenge in and of itself. Doing so with animation, the way Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal do so in their animated film, They Shot the Piano Player is even trickier.

Based on the real-life disappearance and presumed murder of Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Junior in 1976, They Shot the Piano Player, Trueba, and Mariscal bring together jazz music greats – João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Vinicius de Moraes, and Paulo Moura through the lens of Jeff Harris, an American music journalist investigating Tenorio’s case. Jeff Goldblum voices Harris.

The animation done by Carlos Leon Sanoha is sensuous, matching the jazzy riffs that permeate the film, and the cantankerous nature of Harris. Goldblum’s steady voice draws one into the world in which Harris interviews those who knew Tenorio best, attempting to explain his life, the people he immersed himself in, and the South American politics of the mid-1970s.

Trueba’s script frames Tenorio’s story through Harris’ retelling of his discoveries about Tenorio’s life. Trueba has many questions, as a journalist would, trapping Tenorio’s story within Harris’ recollections. Trueba makes a lot of assertions, while Goldblum’s voice reassures the audience that he’s on the right path. The script can be jarring as Harris moves from location to location, and subject to subject, yet through broken voices of emotion, both excitement and sadness, we not only get fascinating glimpses into the politics but a rich history of samba-jazz and those who cultivated its expansion beyond South America.

As jarring as They Shot the Piano Player’s narrative can be, the animation lends a noirish bent to Harris’ investigation. Combining the animation with the style of the story and its subjects makes for an uneven experience. On one hand, you’re intrigued by the story itself, though its shifting tones tug at your interest in it. On the other hand, the animation adds a vibrant layer to the proceedings, realizing Tenorio’s importance and influence.

They Shot the Piano Player’s most shocking moments don’t come from revelations through interviews but from Harris’ visit to the concentration camps scattered throughout South America. In reflecting on our modern politics, it is easy to forget the German expats who landed in that part of the world after World War II ended, and what it did to the burgeoning politics and the people – including Tenorio.

Trueba’s message is important, They Shot the Piano Player offers a unique, tonally unbalanced look at a man who was a father, a grandfather, a musician, and a friend. Tenorio’s language was music, Trueba’s and Martical’s language is animation, and Goldblum’s Harris brings it all to light. Those who were touched by Tenorio spoke highly of him; that power is felt through the animated aspect of this docudrama as it tries to answer the questions put to it.

They Shot the Piano Player offers more than it gives on its subjects but the subject’s influence on its storyteller and its audience finds its way in the end, through the strength of the medium – the language of film.


They Shot the Piano Player

Directed by: Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal

Written by: Fernando Trueba

Voices: Jeff Goldblum, Tony Ramos, João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Vinicius de Moraes, Paulo Moura

PG-13, 103 mins, Sony Pictures Classics

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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