In ‘They Shot the Piano Player,’ a gifted musician goes missing

The beckoning spirit of Brazilian bossa nova floats through “They Shot the Piano Player.” A lot of ghosts, living and dead, float through, too — the aging but still vibrant musicians of that late ’50s/early ’60s musical revolution and the artists who live on only in recordings and archival interviews. But this animated documentary’s central ghost remains touchingly and frustratingly unknowable: Francisco Tenório Júnior, a gifted pianist, considered by his peers as one of the best of their generation, who disappeared in 1976 while on tour in Argentina.

The film, a collaboration between Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba (“Belle Époque”) and artist/co-director Javier Mariscal, sets up a fictional framing narrative that it doesn’t really need: an American journalist (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) becomes fascinated with Tenório Júnior and the mystery of his vanishing while researching a book on bossa nova. After enough Brazilian musical greats — João Gilberto, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, all interviewed for the movie — have told the journalist that this little-known figure was one of the brightest lights of the jazz samba scene, he sets out to discover what really happened after Tenório Júnior left his Buenos Aires hotel room late one night for a sandwich.

Or maybe it was for some medicine for his girlfriend, who had a headache. Memories are hazy with time and a lingering dread. A week after the pianist disappeared, a military coup established a dictatorship in which tens of thousands of Argentines were killed by state terrorism over the course of a nine-year “Dirty War,” part of a wave of repressive right-wing South American governments backed by the United States. Nobody knew what had happened to Tenório Júnior, but they knew it had to be bad.

“They Shot the Piano Player” doesn’t unravel a mystery so much as confirm a tragedy. As the journalist journeys further into the past, speaking with Tenório Júnior’s fellow musicians, his wife and grown children, and ultimately the girlfriend who was with him that fateful night, a portrait emerges of a gentle genius, “a musician only concerned with living a musician’s life.” Under the supervision of animation director Carlos Léon Sancha, the film is a graceful, somewhat overbusy visual treat, a playful riot of colors anchored by a crisp sense of line. Actors voice the lesser-known characters, but Nascimento, Veloso and many other musicians who knew the pianist or were influenced by him are allowed to speak for themselves.

As does Tenório Júnior’s playing and all the warm, inventive bossa nova and jazz samba on the film’s terrific soundtrack. (In lieu of a recording, there’s an official Spotify playlist.) The musician’s fate, when the filmmakers finally reveal it, is imbued with slow-rolling horror and a hideous sense of irony — a warning to the present as well as a glimpse of a shameful past. Against that darkness remains the buoyant life-force of a great talent and the men and women with whom he played. They know that when he went missing, something larger was lost. “If [Tenório Júnior] had lived,” one of his colleagues says, “Brazilian music would have been very different.” The movie gives us no reason to doubt him.

PG-13. At area theaters. Smoking and some violence. 103 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.com.

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