The music documentary often falls into a trap of its own making: the sense that, despite the pervasiveness of popular music in modern-day culture, the form is essentially preaching to the choir of fans of a specific musician, genre or movement, unhelped by the traditional "talking heads" format it often chooses. It's therefore a relief to see Marcelo Machado buck the trend with Tropicália, finding an enticing way to represent this short-lived but highly influential artistic movement that swept Brazil between 1967 and 1969.
The "tropicalist" group, whose unofficial but clearly programmatic leaders were singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil while also taking in film, theatre and art, was enormously popular and acclaimed at the time in their native land, but only really started resonating internationally much later, after more adventurous music fans and younger generations started hearing the treasure trove of recordings it generated. The name was taken from an installation by artist Hélio Oiticica and adopted for a collective album with contributions from all the major musicians involved, and was meant to designate a celebration of the contradictions and culture of 1960s Brazil; simultaneously utopian and traditionalist, melding together "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture, influenced by the Beatles and Anglo-American psychedelia as much as by Brazilian folk art and music and sudsy crooners.
The weak link in Mr. Machado's documentary is its assumption that much of this is already known to viewers, leaving little time to explain who the central figures of the movement were, where they came from, how they got here; instead, Tropicália focuses on contextualising its short-lived existence, as what began as a purely artistic expression became more and more entangled with the country's socio-political reality. It does so by successfully creating a kaleidoscopic, swirling mosaic of vibrantly edited precious archival footage and on-screen graphics that translates into pictures the general sense, feeling and quest of Tropicália: a wide-eyed, optimistic, celebratory happening of Brazil on the on-ramp of the highway to modernity.
The movement's collagist sensibility is excellently captured in the film's visuals, but the real gem is that Mr. Machado has interviewed Messrs. Veloso and Gil and many of the other musicians involved - like Os Mutantes' Rita Lee, Sérgio Dias Baptista and Arnaldo Dias Baptista, or Tom Zé - but keeps them off-screen for most of the film. Their contemporary comments on the movement, coloured with the hindsight of the nearly 50 years that have since passed, create a rueful and joyful contrast between their young idealist selves on-screen and the wiser, more experienced modern-day persons. Tropicália did not change Brazil as much as its members, flush with the enthusiasm of youth, would have wished, but it brought enough change that it remains a guiding light of integrity and artistic creativity that still resonates today, with Mr. Machado's insightful documentary capturing wonderfully the sense of possibility, colour and fun that it brought to a greyish, cloistered Brazil.
Brazil, United Kingdom, USA 2012
Director Marcelo Machado; screenwriters Mr. Machado and Di Moretti, with the collaboration of Fernando Honesko, Oswaldo Santana, Ricardo Soares, Thiago Dottori and Vaughn Glover; based on an idea by Mr. Glover and Maurice James; cinematographer Eduardo Piagge (colour); graphics Gabriel Bitar; art director Ricardo Fernandes; editor Oswaldo Santana; producers Denise Gomes and Paula Cosenza, Bossa Nova Films in co-production with Mojo Pictures, Record Entretenimento, VH1 and DLA, in association with Americas Film Conservancy and Revolution Films
Screened April 14th 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)