'Chico & Rita': An Animated Film With A Cuban Beat

Apr 12, 2012

The animated film Chico and Rita is set in 1940s Havana, at a time when Cuban musicians were starting to leave the country and join the jazz scene in New York. It was also a time when musical styles were fusing — and changing the Afro-Cuban jazz scene entirely.

The film tells the story of Chico, one of the best piano players in Havana, and Rita, his sultriest singer. They're lovers, and eventually their migration takes them past New York to Paris — criss-crossing continents to make music while struggling to keep themselves and their relationship afloat.

Co-director Fernando Trueba, whose film Belle Epoque won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1993, received another Academy Award nomination for Chico and Rita, which recently won Spain's Goya Award for best animated film.

Trueba joins Fresh Air for a discussion about the film — his first animated work — and his love of American jazz music, which helped inspire the film.

"I'm always listening to American jazz, and I arrived to Cuban music through jazz," he tells Terry Gross. "When we started talking about the idea of making the movie and music in Cuba, I said to [my co-director] 'Let's do a story where the characters are musicians, because I love this ambiance and all of that."

Trueba chose Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes to play the musical parts for Chico in the film. Valdes was a key bandleader and arranger in the Cuban music scene in the '40s and '50s. Then he disappeared into obscurity for decades, until his career was recently resurrected. Now in his 90s, he still plays at home — but no longer plays in public. Trueba says Valdes inspired the film.

"We thought, why don't we have the character be a pianist so we can have Bebo play in the movie? So that was the strong idea, and then the rest of the things came naturally after that," he says. "[We had the] idea that every time Chico's character was playing the piano, we had Bebo — the great Cuban musician alive today in the world — play."

Trueba modeled Chico's face in the movie after Valdes' face — and dedicated the movie to him.

"It's his last work, and that's why the movie is dedicated to him," he says. "Not only because of the music, but because I'm sure if it was not for my friendship with him, I would not have written or made a movie like this one. It's not Bebo's biography, it's not his life, but he was the main inspiration of the ambiance, that period, this kind of characters. So Bebo is, for me, everywhere in the movie."

When the film was completed, Trueba arranged for a private screening for Valdes.

"It was an incredible experience," he says. "I was watching Bebo's face all the time, and he was so moved. And at the end of the movie, he was crying his eyes out with tears, and he kissed me. It was an incredible moment. I will never forget that moment — very, very emotional and touching for both of us."

Before becoming a filmmaker, Trueba worked as a film critic in Spain. He has won several Goyas, as well as two Grammy Awards for his work as a music producer. His films include Calle 54, Belle Epoque, El año de las luces and El milagro de Candeal.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The movie "Chico & Rita" is an animated musical that was nominated for an Oscar this year. It's a love story set in Cuba, New York, Hollywood and Paris, and takes place mostly in the late '40s and early '50s. It features great jazz and Cuban music and dazzling animation.

My guest is Spanish director Fernando Trueba, who co-directed "Chico & Rita" with animator Javier Mariscal. Trueba won an Oscar for his film "Belle Epoque." "Chico & Rita" is his second film, focused on Latin music. He directed the music documentary "Calle 54." One of the musicians featured in that film is pianist and composer Bebo Valdes, who became the inspiration for the character of Chico, composed the score for "Chico and Rita," and played some of the piano parts in the film.

The story in "Chico & Rita" is similar to several of the stories told in the documentary "The Buena Vista Social Club." Chico is a Cuban jazz pianist and arranger whose music is played after the revolution. Before the revolution he falls in love with Rita, a beautiful singer. This is the song she sings when he first sees her.


IDANIA VALDES: (as Rita) (Sung in foreign language)

GROSS: That's Idania Valdes, along with Bebo Valdes - no relation - doing "Besame Mucho" from the soundtrack of "Chico and Rita." And my guest is the director and co-writer of the film, Fernando Trueba.

Welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your movie, so thank you so much for joining us.

FERNANDO TRUEBA: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: Now you clearly love Cuban music. You love Latin music. You've already done a documentary film about it. What was your idea of how to integrate that music that you love with a story?

TRUEBA: Well, I love Cuban music but, you know, what I love most of anything in music is jazz. I'm always listening to jazz music - American jazz most of the time. I arrived to Cuban music through jazz. And then when we started talking about the idea of making that movie in Cuba and music, so I say to Mariscal, I say well, let's do a story that the characters are musicians, because I love this ambiance and all that. And because I had worked so much with Bebo and Bebo was at the time with the movie he was 90 and I had previous records with him and we thought why don't we do the character a pianist so we can have Bebo playing in the movie? So that was the strong idea and then the rest of the things came naturally after that, no? The idea that every time Chico was playing the piano, the Chico's character we had Bebo, who is the greatest Cuban musician alive today in the world.

GROSS: He's really amazing and it's so wonderful to hear his music in the context of the movie. And, as you say, he's in his 90s now.


GROSS: And this you say was his last work. Is it not capable of playing anymore?

TRUEBA: Yeah. Yeah. At the time of the movie he had already stopped doing concerts because - and he love playing, he's always playing but he realized that his memory and his health that he shouldn't. He told to me I'm not going to play anymore in public but I will keep playing at home because I need to play. So he had already take that decision and his health was very delicate at the time but he could make it and he could do all the job in the movie, so it's his last work. And that's why the movie is dedicated to him because - not only because of the music but because I'm sure that if it was not for my friendship with him, I would never have written and make a movie like this one. It's not Bebo's biography, it's not his life, but he was the main inspiration of that ambience, that period, this kind of person of characters, so Bebo is for me, he's everywhere in the movie.

GROSS: And Bebo Valdes left shortly after the revolution in Cuba and has lived...

TRUEBA: Yeah. That's completely different from Chico.

GROSS: ...out of the country ever since. So his story is really different. But the character of the Cuban pianist, Chico, his face seems to be modeled on Bebo Valdes' face. Is that right?

TRUEBA: Yeah. Not only the old Bebo in the movie, but also the young one because Bebo was really handsome...


GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TRUEBA: ...young man in the '40s in Cuba. And so Mariscal take Bebo as a model for physically for playing Chico.

GROSS: So I want to play another song that Bebo Valdes wrote for your film "Chico and Rita." And this is the song that Chico is writing when he's separated from Rita and she's become a movie star in Hollywood and he's living in Paris. And, you know, their relationship is very on-again, off-again and they're always inadvertently doing things to end this relationship that really should be but never lasts for long because of how they keep tripping each other up. So he's longing for her in Paris and as he's writing this song, he titles it "Rita," because she is his muse; she is what's inspiring the song. And then he scratches that out and he re-titles it "Lily," naming it after the dog who sits by him loyally at the piano as he composes. So, and this song plays as like a theme through parts of the film.


GROSS: What did you tell Bebo Valdes you wanted from this song and did he write it for the movie or was it a pre-existing song of his?

TRUEBA: No. No. That was an existing song that was included in one of the records of Bebo that I produced. And it's a song he composed for one of his daughters who is a singer in Cuba, Mayra Caridad Valdes. And the original title of the song is "A Mayra." "To Mayra," dedicated to his daughter. But I wanted - I love the music, the melody of that song and I thought it was very cinematic and it was perfect for the movie because "Chico and Rita," is when we started writing it Mariscal was telling me I want this movie to be very romantic, to be like a "Bolero." And so we give the movie the structure of a "Bolero" while always very dramatic love story is very kind of a bit exaggerated, very Latin, desperate love songs. So we did a lot of different versions in the movie, sang and orchestrated in everything. We did a lot of different readings of the theme.

GROSS: So as you say, there's different versions of the song. One of them in the movie is sung by Freddy Cole and I think it's supposed to be Nat King Cole because Nat Cole did a Latin album. And actually Nat Cole recorded with Bebo Valdes at some point, didn't he?

TRUEBA: Yeah. It's very curious because the Nat King Cole records in Espanol - in Spanish were recorded in Cuba and Bebo was the pianist in the band.

GROSS: Oh, so he's the pianist on Nat "Cole Espanol?"

TRUEBA: Yeah. Who was...


TRUEBA: ...number one best-selling in Nat King Cole's career. And Bebo was, he was an admirer of Nat King Cole the pianist because Nat King Cole became very famous as a singer. But not only Bebo, Bill Evans, every time someone asked him who was his favorite pianist he would say Nat Cole because he was really a master pianist. And he had an enormous influence in some great musicians like Bebo, Bill Evans and many, many others. And Bebo told me that at the time of that recording Nat King Cole didn't speak one word of Spanish. And Bebo not only had to play piano on the record but was his coach for Spanish, so he has to teach him to pronounce correctly the words of the song. And Bebo says he did pretty well, only the T's and the O's he didn't master them very well. That's why he say a cachero(ph) cachero instead of saying catcheto(ph). And there is a beautiful photograph of Bebo with Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole in Tropicana at that time in Havana.

GROSS: Sarah Vaughan.


TRUEBA: Sarah Vaughan. Yeah. Yeah. I, sorry. I...


GROSS: That's OK.

TRUEBA: Yeah. My American friends are disparate with me because I for years I've been saying Dizzy Gillespie...


TRUEBA: ... instead of Gillespie and I do this kind of mistakes all the time. Sorry.

GROSS: Oh that's great. So I'm going to ask you about a pronunciation. The singer on this version of "Lily" that we're going to hear is Estrella Morente. Am I saying that right?

TRUEBA: Estrella.

GROSS: Estrella.

TRUEBA: Yeah. Estrella, who means a star. Estrella Morente is for me the most, the greatest flamenco singer today. She's 30 years old and she's the daughter of the greatest Enrique Morente, who passed one year ago, was the best, the master of flamenco singer and she's an amazing artist.

GROSS: Why don't you describe how this version of the song is used in "Chico and Rita."

TRUEBA: Yeah. I wanted - after all this sad story that they had through the years, Chico and Rita, and all the separation and the (unintelligible) and everything, I - it's not that I wanted to have a happy ending. In some ways I wanted a happy end for the movie but also I thought it was fair. I remember my own story with Bebo. Bebo was completely forgotten, playing for 55 years in the piano in the lobby of a hotel in Stockholm in Sweden, completely forgotten. Many people even thought he was dead. And after "Calle 54" I produced some records with him and one of them, "Lagrimas Negras," was an incredible hit in - over the world, and Bebo became an instant star in Spain and he was 80-something at the time. So you couldn't walk even the street, he was like a big, big star. And so I wanted Chico to have this kind of third act so that at the end he's rediscovered and he has success and he can use his success to find finally Rita. So I think it was not just a happy end, you know, it was very realistic that for the end of "Chico and Rita."

GROSS: So let's hear this version of "Lily" by Bebo Valdes from the film "Chico & Rita" featuring Bebo Valdes at the piano and Estrella Morente singing.


ESTRELLA MORENTE: (Sung in a foreign language)

GROSS: That's music from the soundtrack of the animated film "Chico and Rita." My guest is the co-director and co-writer of the film, Fernando Trueba. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Spanish director Fernando Trueba. He co-directed the animated movie musical "Chico & Rita" with animator Javier Mariscal. It's a love story about a pianist named Chico and a singer named Rita who meet and fall in love in Cuba before the revolution.

One of the things you did for "Chico & Rita" was to get access to a Cuban photo archive of streets from 1949. And this was an archive of photos that were used for street repairs? Do I have that right?

TRUEBA: Yeah, that's right. That's right. That was a great discovery when we were doing research in Cuba for the movie and we were watching documentaries and photographs and things. And when we discovered this man who had kept all these photographs of Havana streets at the time of the big wars, and it was a treasure, especially for Mariscal, who was drawing all these streets and backgrounds for the movie.

GROSS: So what are some of the things you saw in those photos that you thought, this has to be in the film? We have to animate this corner or draw this shop or this - yeah.

TRUEBA: Yeah. That was more Mariscal's decision. I always use the term Picassian, you know. And when you see his paintings, they're always very open, very free. But working on "Chico and Rita," he wanted it to be very realistic in terms of the drawing of the cities, of Havana and New York, and all this. So he - when there is the scene in the chase after the Tropicana scene and the...

GROSS: And the car disintegrates?

TRUEBA: ...he's taking the motorbike - yeah - and all this, every street is, one after another, is a real way that you can do in Havana, even today. So in some things, we stayed realistic.

GROSS: Was it in some ways easier to do a realistic film about Cuba before the revolution, and do it as an animated film than it would have been to shoot on location in Cuba?

TRUEBA: I never thought of this story - this story started as an animation movie, and I never thought not for one second as a live action movie. And this - my first and only animation movie. I have always done live action movies with actors, or some documentaries, too. But some kind of stories and situations are best for animation than for live action or documentary or other kind of language.

So that's very curious. For example, most of the time when I see biopic movies, I don't believe, even if they are incredible actors or very good actors. I never believe in biopics.

GROSS: And these are biopics, biographical movies of...

TRUEBA: Biopics. Yeah. Biopics.

GROSS: ...usually of famous people. And, yes, as you say, the information is usually all wrong, and you don't believe it.

TRUEBA: Yeah. I saw the - yeah. I saw the movie about Margaret Thatcher. And Meryl Streep, for me, is one of the greatest actress in the world. But when you watch that movie, you think I'm watching Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher. You don't get lost for one second because you know Margaret Thatcher. You can have - Anthony Hopkins was one of the greatest actors ever playing Picasso. I will never, one frame, one second of the movie, thought I'm watching Picasso.

I'm watching the great Anthony Hopkins pretending to be Picasso. But when you do an animation and you draw Charlie Parker, it is Charlie Parker. You know, I can't explain it, but for me, at least, it's like that.

GROSS: You know, I had the same feeling watching the film. There are scenes in New York where, you know, at this club, it's like Thelonious Monk is at the piano, Charlie Parker's playing - the scene with, like, Ben Webster playing saxophone.


GROSS: And if you - I agree. If you saw a real actor, you'd think, well, it doesn't quite look like Parker, and I wonder who's dubbing for him.



GROSS: When you see it in an animation, it's like, great, yeah. He managed to work in Parker and Monk and Webster. And you just don't question it, because the whole thing is animation. You're not measuring it...


GROSS: ...against reality the same that you do when an actor's playing it. Now, Bebo Valdes left Cuba in 1960, shortly after the revolution. And, you know, one of the points your film makes - which is a point that the documentary "Buena Vista Social Club" made about Cuban jazz musicians after the revolution - is that their music was considered not revolutionary, passe...

TRUEBA: Yeah. And...

GROSS: ...not pertinent anymore. Yeah.

TRUEBA: Yeah. And worse than that, it was considered American, imperialistic.

GROSS: Therefore counter-revolutionary.

TRUEBA: Yeah. And that's one of the things - every time you ask Bebo his favorite composers, he will say Jerome Kern, Gershwin, Cole Porter. All - he was in love with American music. And then when they told him you can't play that anymore, and that first years, it was really anti-American - it changed a bit later, at least in musical terms, I'm talking - but for Bebo, how that I can't play Gershwin? Why? He couldn't understand that. And also he, as a composer, he was with American BMI for his author rights. You know?

GROSS: The music publishing company.

TRUEBA: Yeah, the publishing company. And they say to him: Now you can't have your publishing company in America. Now the publishing belongs to the Cuban state. So for Bebo...

GROSS: So he couldn't collect royalties anymore.

TRUEBA: Yeah. So for Bebo, all these things were unacceptable. He didn't want to live in a country with no freedom with - so he left as soon as he can.

GROSS: Yeah. And my understanding is he asked for permission to take his band to Mexico.

TRUEBA: He went there because he had an audience in Mexico. But then the unions in Mexico were, at the time, very pro-Castro. So they boycotted him, the concert. And with tears in his eyes, really crying...

GROSS: They boycott his concert?

TRUEBA: Yeah. He had to left Mexico. So he went to Spain, to Iran, Italy, Germany. And then, in Sweden, he met his Rose Marie, who is still his wife. And he married her and he stayed there. But he wanted - the first thing for him was to came to United States after he married Rose Marie. He had the plan of coming here. But that was the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert - and Bob Kennedy.

So he was black from Cuba, married with this blond Swedish woman, so he thought maybe it's more prudent - prudent?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TRUEBA: To stay in Sweden than to go to the United States in this moment. So he decide not coming here, who was for a musician, was the natural place to be, for a musician like Bebo.

GROSS: My guest is the co-director and co-writer of the animated movie musical "Chico and Rita," Fernando Trueba. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Fernando Trueba, co-director of the animated movie musical "Chico and Rita," which is largely set in Cuba. He also directed the 2000 documentary "Calle 54" about Latin musicians, including Bebo Valdes, the inspiration for "Chico and Rita."

One of the things you did for your movie "Calle 54," the documentary featuring performances by Latin musicians, was you reunited Bebo Valdes with his son Chucho Valdes, who remained in Cuba...


GROSS: ...and was pretty popular there.


GROSS: And so they hadn't seen each other much over the years.


GROSS: Were they both amenable to getting together and dueting for your movie?

TRUEBA: Yeah. I think they both need that more than anyone else in the world. For them, it was, like, an incredible experience. They were in heaven when we were shooting that scene. The fact of being together both in New York and playing together, for them, was a magical moment. And it was for me and for the movie, too. But it was very difficult for Bebo.

I remember that he told me once, Chucho was playing in Carnegie Hall in New York many years ago, and he hadn't seen him for 17 years. So it was a night that McCoy Tyler was playing and Bill Evans was playing and Chucho was playing with his group Irakere. So Bebo take a plane from Stockholm to New York just to see Chucho, you know, in America. And - but there was - he was never alone. There was a guy from government always with them. You know, because...

GROSS: From the Cuban government.

TRUEBA: Yeah. Always. When they came in tour, musicians, there's always one of the government with them because if not, sometimes people desert the - how you say when they don't come back? When they...

GROSS: Defect.


GROSS: Defect.

TRUEBA: Defect. Exactly. Defect. We say deserter in Spanish. OK. So at that time, they couldn't speak intimately, because there was someone from the government. So that was very frustrating for them.

GROSS: Hmm. Just one more thing. What was Bebo Valdes' reaction when he saw the completed version of "Chico & Rita" knowing that this was his final work?

TRUEBA: Yeah. It's incredible because I pick up the print when it was finished, and I went to Malaga and I rent the theater, and I screen the movie just for him and for Estrella Morente, the flamenco singer who - she lives also in Malaga. So it was an incredible experience. I was watching Bebo's face all the time, and he was so moved. And at the end of the movie, he was crying his eyes out with tears. And he gives me - it was an incredible moment. I will never forget that moment - very, very emotional and touching for both of us.

GROSS: Well, Fernando Trueba, thank you so much for talking with us.

TRUEBA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Fernando Trueba co-wrote and co-directed the animated film "Chico and Rita." He spoke to us from Miami, where he attended the opening of his film. "Chico & Rita" is playing in several theaters around the country, including in New York and Washington, D.C., and will open soon in Chicago and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with Bebo and Chucho Valdes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.