Sony Pictures Classics

They Shot the Piano Player Review: The Musical Mystery of Tenório Júnior

An animated story based on the disappearance of the bossa nova pianist.

3 mins read

They Shot the Piano Player
(Spain/France, 103 min.)
Dir. Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal


They Shot the Piano Player investigates the dark mystery involving the disappearance of a talented Brazilian musician in Argentina in 1976. Francisco Tenório Júnior was an extraordinary pianist, considered to be one of the finest players in Brazil’s world-famous bossa nova movement. He was on tour, playing in Buenos Aires, accompanying the acclaimed poet and singer Vinicius de Moraes, when he went missing one night after going out unaccompanied at 2am. It was quickly surmised that he had been kidnapped by the military police of the Argentine dictatorship, but his fate was not officially recognized for decades.

Trueba has fashioned a brilliant film, which reconstructs this tragedy. Collaborating with the acclaimed multidisciplinary artist Javier Mariscal, the two have made an animation film, which gives a sense of life in Brazil in the past and present. Though it’s mainly a documentary with the voices of such famous musicians as João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil talking about their lost friend Tenório, Trueba has created a fictional framing device in which an American music journalist comes to Brazil to unravel the decades-old disappearance of the piano player.

Using vintage recordings from the Sixties, Trueba evokes the talent of Tenório, who was a brilliant improvisor. He can be compared to the American jazz musician Bill Evans, and it was lovely to find out that they once met and had a great discussion together. But They Shot the Piano Player isn’t just a homage to a great musician. Trueba has researched the sinister Operation Condor, which was backed by the US and involved a conspiracy of state terror in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay in the Seventies and Eighties. Tenório’s death was just one of hundreds of thousands of human rights violations which took place during that time.

They Shot the Piano Player contrasts the beauty of bossa nova and jazz with the horrors of dictatorships. It’s a very impressive film.

They Shot the Piano Player opens in theatres beginning March 15.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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