5:55 PM EST, February 23, 2012
"Rango"probably has the animated feature Academy Award in the bag, but the film that deserves it? A wonderful Spanish-British co-production called "Chico & Rita," making its Chicago debut for a week's run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
I suppose if you detest Cubano jazz and Dizzy-style bebop you may resist the picture. But even then, I doubt it. Certainly jazz fans will have a gasser of a time with "Chico & Rita," and even casual admirers of the music have plenty to enjoy with this fizzy romantic saga set primarily in Havana and New York City in the late 1940s and 1950s, with side trips to Las Vegas and Paris.
The film by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando — Mariscal was the primary force behind the film's design scheme — rides on a wave of original music by Cuban legend Bebo Valdes, now in his 90s. It's animated, but it's not for kids. (I haven't seen this much animated nudity since the heyday of Ralph Bakshi.) When jazz pianist Chico falls for vocalist Rita, it's less a case of love at first sight than trouble from the word "go." As Rita is seduced by the promise of New York and Hollywood fame, and endures the institutional racism that befell Lena Horne, among others, Chico becomes a member of Dizzy Gillespie's band and sees the world while pining all the while for the one who got away.
Part of the fun of this lushly scored and magical period picture, which really is the best music film in any genre in a long time, comes from seeing famous real-life jazzbos interpolated in the story. Woody Herman, Tito Puente and others make their appearances. Cuban musician Chano Pozo, who (likely) died in a disagreement over the quality of a bag of marijuana at age 33, turns up as a supporting character in Chico's saga. Elegantly, and with a keen eye for detail, the "Star is Born" romance is framed by a modern-day rediscovery of Chico, "Buena Vista Social Club" style.
You may find yourself thinking of Scorsese's "New York, New York" as you watch this turbulent, entrancingly corny piece unfold, as well as films that influenced Scorsese, particularly "The Man I Love" (1946). But "Chico & Rita" works fine without first-hand knowledge of its reference points. I love it.
No MPAA rating. Plays Friday-Thursday at the Siskel Film . In Spanish and English with some English subtitles. Running time: 1:34.
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