If you demand a tightly-woven plot from any movie, don’t bother with Chico and Rita, because what passes for plot is useful, like a coathanger, but hardly the central attraction. What makes this movie enjoyable (and it is very enjoyable) is the soundtrack and animation.
The film is set in the 1940s and 1950s and concerns the off-on love affair between Chico, the “best pianist in Havana”, and Rita, a singer, whose voice alone is enough to melt anyone’s heart. She also happens to be uncommonly beautiful. They meet, soon fall in love, but their relationship doesn’t exactly go to plan. So much for plot. The trailer gives most of the story away but, for once, that doesn’t matter.
It’s an animated movie. I’m not up enough on animation styles to be certain of this, but it reminded me of those postcards you see of old detective movies – guys in trenchcoats smoking cigarettes by night on street corners below neon signs. That probably makes no sense to anyone but me! Anyway, the animation is terrific. The shots of Havana give a real sense of what it must have been like, pre-Castro: beautiful, atmospheric, stylish, sleazy and full of extremes of poverty and wealth. Come to think of it, the scenes set in New York City had a pretty similar vibe. The jazz club scenes, which bring to life such famous names as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the dramatic car chases, are superbly handled. I’m not sure how this movie, which is Spanish, will go down in the USA, as the (white) Americans in it are uniformly small-minded, exploitative and nasty.
It is interesting how animation works to bring warmth and style to a city. Good cinema does that routinely by more conventional means – camera angle, light, soundtrack, colour, period specificity – even a familiar city can be revisioned on screen. A successful movie captures some essence of a place and, once on screen, our experience of that city is transformed. The animation in Chico and Rita, while at an even greater remove than an ordinary camera lens, re-imagines its cities with great intimacy and warmth. How cartoons, which deliberately strive not to look too realistic, manage to give an audience the feeling that – just for a moment – they are there, is just one more demonstration of the magic of cinema.
I remember reading a poem (can't remember who by) on the relationship between a town and a scaled down model of the same town. The model drew fascination from viewers, which the town in itself didn't and couldn't possess. A similar relationship between the physical and imaginary, gritty realism and creative impression, exists between an actual city and its cinematic counterpart, which reveals something of the importance and vitality of the arts.
The music, omnipresent throughout the movie, is just fantastic. Latin jazz, be-bop, ballads sung by the fabulous Rita – a real treat. Just watching and listening to this movie was enough. It could have been about anything and it wouldn’t have mattered. However, there was a romantic narrative, as well as a political undercurrent i.e. the treatment of dark-skinned Cuban musicians in the USA at that time. It occurred to me this morning that there was also heavy irony. Both Chico and Rita routinely suffer discrimination during their stay in the USA. They play the hotels but can’t stay in them. They play the jazz clubs but wouldn’t have been sold a ticket to many of them. Later on, when Chico returns to Cuba just after the revolution, he is told that jazz is out of favour with Castro because it’s the music of the imperialist! When, of course, it was precisely the opposite...
I should mention that the ending made the woman sitting next to me cry, so – as a romance – it obviously succeeded with flying colours. But even if you wouldn’t normally dream of going to see a big-screen romantic movie, make an exception for Chico and Rita, unless you hate music. That’s the only reason you’d find this movie hard to enjoy.