From Havana with love

By James Sanford

'Chico & Rita' is a stylish, jazzy animated romance

Wednesday, May 16 —  It's not just love at first sight when musician Chico catches a glimpse of sultry songbird Rita in “Chico & Rita”: It's love at first sound, too. In a dingy bar in late-1940s Havana, Rita saunters onto the stage, wearing a form-fitting, butterscotch-yellow dress and a Mona Lisa smile. Seconds after she launches into a scintillating rendition of “Besame Mucho,” Chico's heart goes into orbit.

This is a romance in which music brings the couple together and, tragically, keeps them apart. Chico wins over the initially evasive Rita when he fills in for an ailing pianist and serves up a respectable version of an Igor Stravinsky concerto. Before long, Chico and Rita are collaborating on sheet music and collaborating between the sheets as well. But achieving your dreams often means leaving other things behind, as the ambitious Rita learns when she follows a smooth-talking manager to New York.

Hand-drawn in a style that suggests classic New Yorker magazine covers springing to life, “Chico” (which was Oscar-nominated this year in the best animated film category) is geared toward sophisticated adults. Post-World War II Havana, with its casual hook-ups, catfights and racial tensions was apparently not Disneyland.

In addition to its seductive look — and a swinging Latin jazz soundtrack from Bebo Valdes that will make you crave a pitcher of mojitos — the movie is smart and snappy. “I'd kiss the ground you walk on,” Chico tells Rita, “if you lived in a cleaner neighborhood.” Pretending to be offended, Rita takes off, telling him, “Don't even think about following me”; the come-hither sway in her hips, however, sends an entirely different message.

The film has all the earmarks of a painstakingly crafted labor of love, as directors Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando follow Chico and Rita from Cuba to Manhattan (which triggers a lovely, lively abstract dream sequence, in which Rita turns into Josephine Baker, Ingrid Bergman and that dream of a dance partner, Cyd Charisse) and then on to the bitter glitter of Las Vegas. Along the way, there are cameos from real-life legends such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente, as well as a few thought-provoking asides about discrimination and assimilation. Like many of the jazz melodies it celebrates, “Chico & Rita” doesn't always go in the direction you expect.

“Chico & Rita” is not rated, but it contains profanity, violence and nudity.

‘Chico & Rita’
In Spanish and English,
with subtitles
Presented by East Lansing Film Festival and the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 16
Hannah Community Center
819 Abbot Road,
East Lansing
$10 general admission