Chico & Rita has a durable story about love and heartbreak, ambition, jealousy and the music business that it tells faithfully and well. We have Chico, a Cuban pianist in postwar Havana. He’s sought after as a musician but he’s mainly seeking out women. Then he finds Rita singing in a dumpy bar. He pursues her and they fall in love and into bed and share a lovely evening and midmorning that is rudely interrupted by one of Chico’s other girls which sends Rita off.
Neither can deny their attraction nor, more importantly, what a good act they make so, at the urging of Chico’s brother and manager, Ramòn, they continue on together, winning contests and playing bigger clubs. Despite his moodiness and jealousy she sticks up for him, turning down a lucrative offer to play in New York because it doesn’t include Chico. He’s too rash to see this and reacts with anger, assuming she’s ditched him and gets drunk and finds another floozy. In the morning she is gone, off to New York. He matures, finds himself in demand in the States and he and Ramòn are off to the Big Apple as well. This inspires a clever visual dream sequence in which Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Casablanca (1942) are referenced and it goes quickly from a dream to a nightmare. This is a moment in which Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal, who made the film, really explore the possibilities of animation. The movie is obviously made on computers, at least partially, but it’s designed to look hand drawn and the characters resemble something out of a Rivera painting mixed with Picasso. What they lack in realism, the gain in impressionism, which is the main advantage of animation. It would have been nice if more stylistic moments like this dream sequence existed in Chico & Rita.
Rita and Chico reconnect in New York and despite their wishes, perhaps, can’t quit each other. They float in and out of each other’s lives. She becomes a film star, he writes a hit, they find each other one night and decide to marry in Las Vegas, where she is set to begin a run at a casino. They are torn apart by an unexpected force and he goes back to Cuba, which is under Castro now and he is forced out of music. Chico & Rita then gives way to its very lovely ending and truly, this is a very lovely film, which cares about its leads and more so about music. There is wall-to-wall jazz, bebop, rumba, Afro-Cuban music, salsa and bassa nova. During his time in New York, Chico and Ramòn befriend Chano Pano, the real Cuban expatriate who was playing drums with Dizzie Gillespie (Charlie Parker and Tito Puente make cameos as well). He shows them the ropes. “Everything in America is about respect,” he tells them and they witness a terrifying moment of music history that eerily echos Chico’s dream.
This is a good movie, made with energy and it exists primarily as a celebration and record of a cultural identity that was largely swept away with the revolution. “Jazz is imperialist music,” Chico is told upon returning to Cuba. “The music of the enemy.” In a swift blow, he loses his two loves.