Using animation as the medium for feature-length documentaries is a fairly novel development, Waltz with Bashir and Flee being notable examples of international acclaim and incredible awards-season success. They Shot The Piano Player––Spanish duo Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal’s second animated offering after the fictional Chico and Rita––is the most recent addition to this burgeoning subgenre. Not without its fictional elements either, the film sets up an elaborate frame narrative for the story it really wants to tell: Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior, who disappeared in Argentina circa 1976 under mysterious circumstances.
To get to that point, the filmmakers invent an American writer, Jeff Harris (Jeff Goldblum), who is contracted to write a book about the Bossa Nova music movement that originated in the 1950s in Rio de Janeiro. Partway through his research, Harris switches the subject to focus exclusively on Tenório Jr., unanimously acknowledged as the most influential pianist of his generation, and this decades-unsolved disappearance. We open at a book-signing event at New York’s Strand in 2009, where Harris details his investigative efforts at great length; this monologue forms the voiceover narration for the documentary we are watching.
Such storytelling hijinks initially pay dividends. They Shot The Piano Player’s droll, breezy first act (aided by Goldbum’s sprightly vocal performance) allows audiences to ease into what’s, at heart, a grim tale of authoritarianism, dictatorships, and suppression in South America. But as we go along these twin strands seem increasingly incompatible, the filmmakers shortchanging both.
If the Bossa Nova sections offer a whirlwind survey of the artists that pioneered this movement, there isn’t any deeper engagement with what made this new sound vital or important. We hear snippets of hits and no musical analysis, viewers simply asked to accept on faith the importance of this movement. And these portions are increasingly sidelined for the movie’s true focus: the Tenório Jr. story.
That investigation takes on the tenor of cold-case crime podcasts so in-vogue today––only with a repetitive quality as the same, relatively brief set of facts are repeatedly recounted without adding anything to the picture. Such is where shortcomings of the narrative scheme devised by the filmmakers comes into sharp relief. Because the film purports to be a chronological account of how Harris gathered his information, the audience has to relive his experience of hearing the same details again and again from different subjects. Without the narrative hook of a fictional reporter, the filmmakers wouldn’t have been obliged to present discovery of this information in a strictly chronological fashion and could have intercut these interviews to build their case with greater persuasion.
Which brings us to the question of why this documentary is animated in the first place. Despite its narrative inventions, it boils down to a standard-issue talking-heads documentary for most of its duration––complete with onscreen titles to indicate who is speaking. Animated recreations take the place of archival footage, but the form isn’t deployed with nearly the same imaginative artistry as it was in Bashir or Flee.
The research is thorough and admirable. Almost every living person even mildly affiliated with Tenório Jr. is included to paint as complete a picture as possible of what went down. Though the filmmakers recorded all of these interviews over several years, the talking-head sections are animated to these voice snippets to create the illusion of watching these filmed interviews. This begs the question: why aren’t we seeing those interviews directly in the first place rather than an abstract recreation of them?
The animation on offer is also strictly low-fi, something we might charitably call relatable––it seems indistinct from what members of the audience might be able to produce should they put some effort into it. The art has the quality of newspaper comic strips which are famously turned around on rather short deadlines and have indifferent editorial standards. It would not be difficult to find animated films from the 1920s that have greater detail and sophistication in animation.
Overall the subjects included in the film present some interest. But the filmmakers might have been better served making two distinct documentary shorts for their twin concerns––in live-action, in fact, when the most rudimentary animation is expensive and labor-intensive. Certainly when their deployment of the medium seems entirely unpredicated, unmotivated.
They Shot The Piano Player screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics.