Authorship of “Chico & Rita” is attributed to Fernando Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, but that credit must also belong to composer Bebo Valdés, the famed Cuban pianist and bandleader who wrote this film’s original music and gave it a life story to gently jazz up. We might as well assume that Valdés, or a version of him, once spied an enchanting young singer in some Havana night club and said, “Man, she’s just what I need,” meaning both personally and professionally, and that a half-century-spanning whirlwind of romance, ambition, world travel, and (creatively useful) heartbreak ensued.
Anyway, that’s how it goes for Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Oña) and Rita (voiced by Limara Meneses), whose capricious careers-at-cross-purposes love affair, set like a jewel within the momentous midcentury Afro-Cuban jazz profusion, seems surprisingly genuine. Especially for a cartoon musical. Really, like any movie, or any worthy jazz band, this is an ensemble effort, equally impossible without the contributions of animator Tono Errando and designer Javier Mariscal, who also share directing credit with Trueba. The point is that they’ve got a very tight ensemble, well matched with the given repertoire.
“Yesterday’s Melodies” is how one soft-spoken radio DJ describes it in a present-tense prologue, putting on a song that takes old-man Chico back — his fingers instinctively arpeggiating on the windowsill — to the tuneful deco clarity of his young man’s life in Havana, 1948. And the simple retro-mural style of animation, mostly drawn by hand, is eager to receive him there. Which is all the better for getting into this movie’s special groove of languid sensuality. In a live-action alternative, all the come-ons and cigar smoke and Caribbean breezes surely would be too much to take.
Chico remembers how he and Rita separately wound up in New York, and how their paths crossed there; the paths themselves offer no shortage of visual and aural pleasures. (And the same goes, later, for Los Angeles, Paris, and even Las Vegas). Making the most of cameos by musical luminaries including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Tito Puente, and Chano Pozo, Trueba and company manage somehow never to let their story seem stalled out.
Of course historical period-appropriateness also extends to pat Hollywood formula — complete with all manner of montage, from neon town-painting to whirling headline pileup to lonely urban roam over stringy interlude to tender flashback highlight reel. This not actually being a Hollywood movie seems to make a difference. (See also: “The Artist.”) Possibly some enrichment is inherent in the process of cultural translation, but maybe it’s just the difference between affection and desperation.
Trueba won a Foreign Language Film Oscar for 1992’s “Belle Epoque,” and was nominated again for “Chico & Rita.” One reason for that nomination must be the fact of very clearly having made a cartoon for adults. Not in the way of recent Pixar films, where concessions are made to kids’ interests as well, and certainly not in the way of, say, anime porn. The art itself is plainly rudimentary by the standards of the former; the content, certainly by contrast to the latter, seems quite sophisticated. There is nudity here, and even eroticism — which only can occur with a preliminary investment in actual human feeling. And for all the outward decor, there is inner-life directness.
If “Chico & Rita” has politics, they must be inferred — from romantic nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Cuba, and from flat resignation to racist, pseudo-sophisticated urban America. Similarly, the movie’s style might or might not itself be a claim that shrill 3D digital complexity has tainted something fundamental about why we respond to animated stories in the first place.
But in any case, Bebo Valdés now is nearly a century old — both the product and co-creator of a golden cultural age. A more strenuously current framework for any tale built around his music would be wrongheaded and pretentious. Thus the real and basic beauty of “Chico & Rita” is the keen understanding shared by its core creative combo: that the music was and is the thing, and that it’s still as fresh as ever.