‘Chico & Rita’ Is a Neon Nod to Old Hollywood

American filmgoers of a certain age often lament the disappearance of the romantic classics of Hollywood’s Studio Era such as Casablanca or the evergreen Gone With the Wind. As the late Sydney Pollack noted, the rapturous couple were usually pried apart by the final reel, and that’s why these films left an indelible emotional impact.

Nowadays, Hollywood bean counters – and what else can they be, given the outrageous costs of contemporary A-list moviemaking? – generally insist on a warm, fuzzy climax, the pair living happily ever after. The Cuban animated epic Chico & Rita unapologetically embraces the bittersweet love stories of that earlier time, evoking those films in its gorgeous, lush palette.

Those aged cranks should note that there’s a catch. Chico & Rita is not only animated, but also recorded mostly in Spanish, and released – in my country, at least – with English subtitles. And I’m not sure that the crowd hungry for foreign-language features overlaps much with disgruntled elderly moviegoers nostalgic for glittering picture palaces and the absence of four-letter words.

And nostalgia is at the heart of this film, starting with its compelling recreation of a storybook Havana that existed briefly between WWII and Fidel Castro’s revolutionary eruption at the dawn of the Jet Age. Indeed, director Fernando Trueba(Calle 54, Belle Epoque) – one of three credited – states in the making of featurette that he wanted the audience to view Havana itself as a “star” of the picture, and his co-director, Javier Mariscal claims that Cuba’s capital enjoyed a sort of Gilded Age during the period when American money flowed like green rivulets through the city. Such words are political dynamite to supporters of Castro’s overthrow, but that’s a debate I’ll sidestep for now. Chico & Rita is, for all intents and purposes, a simple boy-meets-girl, boy…well, I won’t spill the rest of a tale familiar to anyone weaned on Production Code-era Hollywood fare, or episodic television of the ’70s and ’80s, for that matter.

In 1948 Havana, Chico, an impoverished unknown pianist, encounters the lovely torch singer Rita in a local bar, and is immediately smitten, as she croons a creamy “Besame Mucho”. To no one’s surprise, the curvaceous, slender-waisted siren is initially scornful of this bumpkin, but it hardly takes a crystal ball to know that amor will quickly bloom. Their stormy, on again-off again relationship forms the plot, but for me, Chico & Rita’s self-conscious homage to Old Guard Hollywood is the meatiest item on the platter, not to mention the cauldron of social issues stirred up.

It should be said that Chico & Rita’s most engaging attribute is its luxuriant visual tableau. There’s a skillful, nearly seamless blend of CGI and hand-drawn work, and, as explained in the extras, rotoscoping, famously used by Ralph Bakshi in his grandest productions, was utilized to render the human characters, whom are no less lifelike that in the storied Disney films that Walt himself commissioned.

From the neon-brilliant boulevards of postwar Havana, New York, and Paris, Chico & Rita consistently impresses with a rich production design. I’m reminded at times of Todd Haynes’ lush, full-blooded Far From Heaven – an erstwhile reboot of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows – and one wonders how he might handle a live-action mounting of this story. Much of Chico & Rita unfolds in a world of swank Havana supper clubs, sleek pastel-colored Cadillacs, and penthouse soirees, the swells clad in black tie and silky evening gowns.

Rita becomes a fixture of this demimonde, but as she circulates in American mid-century high society, we’re soon reminded that she’s an outsider. Her accent, skin color – our heroine is a black Latina – and birth language mark her as such. In pre-revolutionary Havana, local blacks were barred from upper-crust white establishments and enclaves, but they could mix freely with caucasian tourists in less tony environments, and we witness an integrated party early in the film.

As Rita is appropriated into the American show biz mainstream – and she needs the assistance of an acquisitive white impresario to crossover – she soon bumps her head against a stubborn racial glass ceiling. When Rita angrily challenges segregation at a Vegas casino, this act proves her undoing. Chico has his own coming-of-age after arriving in the Big Apple; he’s informed by Cuban friends that the barriers they endured in Cuba are also present in the States, and arguably more rigid. Yet New York is the key to finding international fame playing music their ancestors created.

If Chico & Rita tips its hat to Golden Age Hollywood, it’s foregrounding of black characters also serves as a gentle critique of an period and business model which seldom allowed nonwhites to take lead roles. If the late Stanley Kramer had fashioned a socially-conscious neo-musical in his heyday, it might have resembled Chico & Rita. In other respects, the film references famous scenes from that period; a passing bus causes Rita’s skirt to billow upwards, a nod to Marilyn Monroe’s similar wardrobe malfunction after stepping on a stem grate in The Seven Year Itch.

Chico & Rita isn’t a traditional musical in which a character’s dialogue suddenly blossoms into song, but instead features a generous helping of stage performances, more reminiscent of Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club – itself a hybrid of dark Warner Bros gangster dramas and MGM Technicolor syrup – than Showboat. Chico & Rita also departs from Old Hollywood conventions by presenting nudity and harsh words that would have been denounced as profanity by censorious Code agents.

It’s easy to spot narrative shades of Trueba’s movie in other works. Rita’s swift ascent into Vanity Fair café society parallels that of Diana Ross’ ghetto girl designer in Motown’s soapy Mahogany, Barry Manilow’s ’70s disco melodrama “Copacabana” captures the star-crossed pathos of the film’s leads, and Chico’s unexpected twilight-years rise to fame echoes that of Rodriguez, the gifted Detroit singer-songwriter who, in his 70s, has become the talk of the town after being spotlighted in the documentary Searching For Sugarman. Also, midway through the film, we see Chico navigate his way through a striking retro-chic dream sequence, reminiscent of Saul Bass’ ground-breaking titles work in the ’50s and ’60s.

Extras included here are quite generous, and include a booklet excerpt of the film’s graphic novelization, both DVD and Blu-Ray editions, a nearly 30 minute making of featurette, the American theatrical trailer, Bebo Valdes’ full-length soundtrack, and an audio commentary from Trueba and Mariscal. Two demerits: the absence of liner notes accompanying the soundtrack and the audio commentary is, inexplicably, only included on the Blu-Ray disc, not the standard DVD. I suppose the powers-that-be are trying to push us towards the Blu-ray format as expeditiously as possible. On the plus side, the making of doc contains extensive footage of the artwork process, probably mysterious to the layman.

No one can argue that Chico & Rita isn’t a predictable, heart-on-its-sleeve romance. In that sense, it’s old-fashioned to the core. You’ll find nothing edgy, opaque, or postmodern in its simple narrative. Politically speaking, one can only conclude that it takes a dim view of the Cuban Revolution. Chico’s music is marginalized as decadent drivel after Batista’s ousting, and oppressive travel regulations tether him to the island for decades. We never see Fidel, but nobody seems to be singing the fearless leader’s virtues, either.

There’s little doubt that Chico & Rita is perceived as a curio to audiences who associate animation with SpongeBob and Scooby-Doo, as is definitely the case in the US, despite the valiant efforts of Cartoon Network’s wee hours “Adult Swim” to brand it otherwise. And let’s not forget the anarchic Ralph Bakshi’s daringly raunchy films of the ’70s. In the current millennium, The Land of The Rising Sun is more amenable to grown-up stories in this medium, but Japanese anime is awash in robots, elfin creatures and armed warriors. I’m happy to say that the film was released to critical raves and an Oscar nomination. It’s sad to realize that Chico & Rita, a film both celebratory and melancholy, might otherwise be ignored.

RATING 8 / 10