If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution. -- Emma Goldman
For a movie set in Cuba in large part during the 1950s, there's surprisingly little revolutionary fervor to be found in Chico and Rita (2010, directed by Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal, and Fernando Trueba). It's not a political movie, per se, though you can see politics seeping through the circumstances of our pair of doomed lovers. The personal is political, after all, but I'm probably reading too much into this. It's what I do. You should see me work with tea leaves. Then again, there's another revolution going on in this film, one not headed by Fidel Castro, in which the titans of jazz during the 1950s evolved the idiom beyond its dance-hall origins. THAT revolution, led by the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, is very MUCH central to Chico and Rita.
This is basically a love story, in which our star-crossed lovers are separated because of their own pride. Chico is a piano player. His friend, the hustler, Ramon, says he's the hottest piano player in Cuba that nobody knows about. Chico is on the lookout for a singer to sing one of his songs in a radio contest. The prize is cash, plus a contract to play at one of Havana's premiere nightspots. While out tomcatting with a couple of Yankee girls, Chico and Ramone spot Rita, who sings at a open air dance hall. She's the one, Chico knows, and he pursues her. Eventually, he takes her to bed, though that ends badly when his current girlfriend barges in on them. This is a habit with Chico. He has a wandering eye. When Rita is recruited by a big spending Yankee impresario who wants to take her to New York, it's Chico's wandering eye that does him in. Chico, for his part, knows that Rita is the one for him and he and Ramon follow her to New York, where she doesn't want anything to do with them. She's not happy, though. She's a caged bird in America, even in spite of her rising star. When she finally reunites with Chico, her keeper arranges it so that Chico is deported on drug charges. The years pass.
I'll say this for Chico and Rita, it's ambitious. It reminds me a bit of Ralph Bakshi's American Pop, which tells a similar large scale narrative through music, though that movies has loads of problems that derive from its ambitions. Chico and Rita largely avoids those problems by maintaining its focus on the love story. The animation is more appealing, too, though the animation is not the attraction of this movie. This is not a movie that fans of animation are going to look at and say that it is beautiful, not the way that they look at the work of Miyazaki or Chomet or even Pixar. The design of the animation is interesting, though: it's computer animation designed to look like traditional, hand-drawn animation, and this is a combo that it doesn't get quite right. There are sometimes awkward passages when the characters don't quite seem like they're inhabiting their environments. The visual sensibility behind this is appealing, though. It doesn't look like Japanese animation or anything from Europe or Disney. There's a hint of the Harlem renaissance in the designs of this. And while the main figure animation is often awkward, the backgrounds are always a joy to look at. In this, the film is successful in creating a Havana and a New York that is convincingly real and yet still the province of memory and dreamy imagining.
There's a nice sense of disappointed romanticism in the relationship between Chico and Rita, and a surprisingly carnal element as well. These are passionate, sensual, sexual people, and the film uses this to make Chico and Rita's actions not only comprehensible, but inevitable. Theirs is a relationship that's doomed from the start, but it's an affair that both characters need, one that defines each of their lives. The movie has a happy ending of sorts, though it's one that's quietly devastating. It earns this honestly.
I say that the film isn't in touch with the politics of the Cuban revolution, but it's totally in touch with the politics and problems of race in America and Cuba. You can see it at the start when Chico, Rita, and Ramon are all attached to white American paramours, each seeing their relationships as either a status symbol or an economic opportunity. When Rita eventually leaves with her sugar daddy, she becomes just another plantation worker for the man. The racial politics of America in the 1950s aren't even subtext. They're right there on the surface. Chico and Ramon's sponsor in New York, Chano, chooses not to tour with Dizzy Gillespie through the American south because he doesn't want to be treated like he's nothing more than just another n*gg*r to be shunted to the side entrance. Rita, for her part, demolishes her relationship with Ron, her sugar daddy, when she goes on stage drunk and rants about how she's the star of the Vegas show she's in, but she's not even good enough to stay at the hotel. The way this movie is framed, as a flashback reminiscence, is a reminder that all of this is within living memory. It gives the movie a backbone of anger it might not have otherwise. The love scenes between Chico and Rita have a bit more meaning here, given that they're not defined by white people, and they express a sexuality that they are never shown exploring with the film's white characters. This is a stark rebuke to the way people of color are often de-sexed by movies. Melvin Van Peebles would be proud of this, had he made it. It's also, incidentally, a rebuke to the ghetto of children's animation where animated films are often unfairly consigned.
But everything else in the movie is almost beside the point. This is a movie about music, whatever else might be on its mind. The music in this movie is tremendous, and wall to wall. Music what connects Chico and Rita, it's what draws them apart, it's what defines them. This celebrates mid-century Cuban music, it positively worships bebop jazz, and it even gives a shout out to some of the outlaws of 20th Century classical music when Chico fills in on piano for a band playing a new Stravinsky piece. That Chico can move between all of these idioms defines his character as surely as his love affair for Rita does. Rita, for her part follows her muse from life as a street hustler to Broadway and Hollywood. I think it's interesting that the movie begins with hip-hop before regressing through time to Mambo. It's all of a piece, the movie seems to be saying. And so it is. In a way, this is a movie that probably couldn't have been made by Americans, even though it's as much a love letter to American music as to Cuban music. Americans never appreciate their own native culture. Never have.