Why tell a story with animation? Chico & Rita, Francisco Trueba’s 2010 Cuban jazz romance, provides one answer – its gorgeously rich coloring and stylized cityscapes bring a relatively clichéd story to swooning life. Much of the film is told in flashback, as Chico (Eman Xor Oña), a washed-up jazz pianist making a living shining shoes in modern-day Havana, turns on his radio at the end of the day and hears the song he wrote with Rita (Limara Meneses), a talented singer and his on-again-off-again love. As per its Old Hollywood lineage, the ensuing narrative reminiscence brings predictable complications – Rita leaves Cuba to find stardom after Chico spurns her, while Chico chases her to New York City and then across the globe – but the narrative here isn’t quite the point. The point is the stunning soundtrack, composed by the trailblazing bandleader Bebo Valdés, and the sheer visual pleasure of watching Chico and Rita’s paths meet, diverge, and re-join as they journey from Cuba to the US and back again.
One early sex scene renders everything in soft, deep blues and curving lines as our view trails down the lovers’ bodies and out towards the lovingly rendered Havana nightscape. A mid-movie dream sequence (paying homage to that romance to end all screen romances Casablanca, natch) is all staccato bursts of color and light, offering a vision of New York City that out-Gatsbys any film version of The Great Gatsby that is likely to exist. The bright, beautiful animation and brilliant music combine to create one of the most sumptuous sensual experiences of any film in recent memory – if you have good speakers, bust them out and sink into the film’s plush world. And a special nod has to go to Rita’s character design. Rendered simply in a gold dress for much of the film, she has an innate magnetism that all the best animated characters possess; when Chico first spots Rita across the floor of a crowded bar, we instantly understand why they’re drawn together.
Animation is well-suited to creating the kind of impeccable images that can stick in your brain well after the film has ended. Think of the waves breaking behind Ariel as she belts the final note of “Part of Your World,” or of Satsumi and Mei riding through the air with Totoro. It’s a medium that’s inherently fantastical, and gives everything a touch of the otherworldly – and, Chico & Rita seems to argue, doesn’t romance, and music, do the same? Don’t they bring color and life to circumstances that might otherwise be just drab, everyday, real?
Chico & Rita is currently available to stream on Netflix.