- Movie Rating -

They Shot the Piano Player (2024)

| March 1, 2024

Spanish director Fernando Truaba is one of those filmmakers whose filmography would be the envy of any amount of unsuccessful but still aspiring young directors struggling to make a name for themselves.  His best-known work is 1992’s BELLE EPOQUE which brought him the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film.  I admire that film a great deal, but I think his new film might be his best work.

They Shot the Piano Player is a hybrid of true crime, documentary and animated spectacle based on something that apparently happened to Trueba at least two decades ago.  While visiting a record store, he became enraptured by the music of a long-forgotten jazz pianist Francisco Tenorio, Jr., whose music was so captivating that he tried to do some armchair research on the man only to find that his body of work stopped in 1976 when he went missing while on tour with his band in Buenos Aires. 

What happened to him on the night that he disappeared?  He left his hotel room to pick up sandwiches and was never seen or heard from again.  And after that?  Well, that’s the journey that Trueba takes us on, not through his own journey, but via a fictionalized journalist named Jeff Harris who is voiced by Jeff Goldblum.

Now, if that last bit sounds a little nutty, adding in also the fact that the movie is animated then this is an experience that you just need to dive into because, surprisingly, it works.  One of the wavering disagreements among my fellow critics is whether or not this should have been a straight documentary dispatching with the “distracting” use of animation.

I could not disagree more.  Yeah, it could have been perfectly serviceable in that format, but I don’t think that I would remember it as well.  There is a lively and beautiful quality to this film as Harris digs deep, conducts interviews and discovers the treachery and murderous political climate present all over South American at the time as brutal regimes by various dictators led to the senseless murders of thousands upon thousands of innocent people just like Francisco.

The animation is of value because it gives us a sense of the color and life and energy that was taken away with each of those tragic murders.  The layout is not the crisp multi-million dollar animation of Pixar or Disney, but feels hand drawn, giving it a very personal structure, like an individual memory.  You can see in the backgrounds, very specific things, like dogs and cars and passers-by that were not essential to the central action.  That gives the tapestry a life-goes-on feel in contrast to Jeff studying one life that was cut short.

The journey toward Tenorio’s final hours plays out in a CITIZEN KANE-like narrative as Jeff interview people who knew him, people who worked with him, people who were inspired by him and ultimately the family that was forced to mourn him.  The movie never says this out loud but it makes clear that these tyrannical regimes whether in South America or Nazi Germany or anywhere else remove from the world very specific people with very specific lives.  Such a talent and passion as Tenorio was cut off by someone’s random decision to make him an example.

This is a special film.  I love the work here.  I love the message here.  I love the journey here.  And, of course, I love the music.  It was infectious and reminds us of a talent that Jeff is trying to save.  No one could save Tenorio’s life but he could at least save the music he was trying to leave to the world.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2024) View IMDB Filed in: Animated, Drama