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

Sep 14, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 12:24 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on April 12, 2012. Fernando Trueba's Chico & Rita is now out on DVD.

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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

"Chico & Rita," the Oscar nominated animated musical, will be out on DVD next week. It's a love story set in Havana, New York, Hollywood and Paris, largely in the late '40s and early '50s, with great jazz and Cuban music and dazzling animation.

Our guest is Spanish director Fernando Trueba, who co-directed "Chico & Rita" with animator Javier Mariscal. Terry spoke to him in April. Trueba won an Oscar for his film "Belle Epoque." He also directed the music documentary "Calle 54," which featured pianist and composer Bebo Valdes. Valdes composed the score for "Chico and Rita," and played most of the piano parts. And he was the inspiration for the character of Chico, a Cuban jazz pianist and arranger whose music is considered passe 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)


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: 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 - 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 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 who 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? 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 a 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 health that 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. 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.

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. 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? 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, 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. 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: ...the number one best-selling in Nat King Cole's career. And Bebo was an admirer of Nat King Cole 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 and he had an enormous influence in some great musicians like Bebo, Bill Evans and many, many others. 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: 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: (Singing in a foreign language)

DAVIES: Music from "Chico and Rita." We'll hear more of Kerry's interview with director Fernando Trueba after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in April with Fernando Trueba who Co-directed the animated musical "Chico & Rita." It's out on DVD next week.

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: ...of 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 who is 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's 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, 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: 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.

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.

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 kiss 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.

DAVIES: Fernando Trueba speaking with Terry Gross. Trueba co-directed the animated musical "Chico and Rita" which is out on DVD next week. Here's a duet with Bebo Valdes and his son Chucho recorded in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.