There are no two ways about it, Chico & Rita is a labor of love.

The animation movie, which goes on general release here on June 28, tells the story of a Cuban pianist and his largely unrequited love for a beautiful compatriot singer.

The movie was directed by Spanish multidisciplinary professional Fernando Trueba, who had quite a vested musical and personal interest in the project. Trueba is a great jazz fan and, in particular, has a penchant for Cuban jazz. He has also worked with, and befriended, Bebo Valdes, the 93-year-old Cuban pianist on whose life story Chico & Rita is based.

“You could say this movie combines everything I love,” says the 57-yearold director, who won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film with Belle Époque in 1994. “As I get older, I try only to work in things that I really like. Chico & Rita is exactly that because there’s cinema, music and everything I love in there.”

Trueba has his gifted fingers in numerous professional pies. For a start, in 1998 he put out the first compendium of Latin jazz, in Spanish, called Diccionario del Jazz Latino. Shortly after that, he became involved in an area that eventually led to Chico & Rita. He set up the Calle 54 record label, which kicked off in 2000 with the soundtrack of a documentary of the same name, made by Trueba. The film features studio performances by a wide range of Latin jazz musicians, including Valdes, his equally famous pianist son Chucho, reedman Paquito D’Rivera and Dominican Republic-born pianist Michel Camilo. Since then, Trueba has used the label as a production and distribution vehicle for several more albums by Bebo Valdes, some together with Chucho. Success also followed Trueba into the music industry and, to date, he has won two Grammys and four Latin Grammys.

In fact, the Chico & Rita project first got up and running when Trueba came across the work of compatriot artist and designer Javier Mariscal. It was a mutual admiration meeting.

“This film started because we decided we wanted to do something together,” explains Trueba.

But the eventual synergy wasn’t only fueled by respect for each other’s visual output. “We discovered several years ago that we both love Cuban music,” says Trueba. “When I made the record of the soundtrack of the Calle 54 documentary, I asked Mariscal to make the poster and do the artwork for the film. And after I started the record label, I asked him to do all the covers for the records.”

More than anything, Chico & Rita is a tribute to the life and work of the Cuban pianist who, unfortunately, has not been able to perform for the last two years. “Bebo and I became very close over the years. We have produced albums by different artists on Calle 54, but Bebo was the fire that started everything,” says Trueba.

“Now that Bebo is old and can’t play anymore. I wanted to keep his music alive and to make his name and his work live on. That was a very important motive for making the film.”

Besides following the ups and downs of the Bebo character, the film also does a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere of prerevolution Cuba and the vibe of the popular jazz scene of New York in the 1940s and ‘50s. All sorts of jazz icons of the era make cameo appearances in the animation movie, such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

“With the music, we tried to capture the sound of the period.

That’s the work of Mariscal – we tried to capture to the sights and sounds of the cities of Cuba and the streets of Havana in those days.”

That, as much as anything, was fed by Trueba’s love of jazz and the people who create it. “I love music so much, and I love to be in the studio with the musicians while they are making records,” he declares. “For me, that is pure happiness and joy.

To choose a project and to choose the musicians, that is something I would like to do every day of my life.” That love of the music and the players is clearly conveyed in Chico & Rita, which earned an Oscar nomination earlier this year.

Trueba does own up to harboring an, albeit harmless, ulterior motive for his musical pursuits. “I am a frustrated musician. I have tried to play music but not successfully,” he states.

“Before I die, I would like, at least, to become a mediocre musician.”

Be that as it may, he and Mariscal have done a masterly job with Chico & Rita. The film is not just about the music, and even people who have no special interest in Latin jazz will surely enjoy the unfolding love story of the eponymous characters.

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