Last week a friend of mine invited me to go to movie, A Música Segundo Tom Jobim (The Music According to Tom Jobim). I have to admit that as much I like Antônio Carlos (“Tom”) Jobim– whom in Brazil is pretty much universally revered as the country’s greatest composer of all time – I was in the mood for something with a little more dramatic punch than a musical documentary with its tried-and-true chronological format of interviews with talking heads alternating with the usual collage of rare live footage, concert performances, and still photographs.I’d heard Jobim classics sung numerous times in both Portuguese and English, but never in German, Italian, and Japanese.
Although I agreed to see the documentary, upon arrival at the movie theater, I admit I had to momentarily fight an overwhelming urge to buy a ticket to see George Clooney in The Descendants). What ultimately kept me on the straight and narrow were two considerations:
1. Along with Dora Jobim (Tom’s granddaughter), the film was directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, the 83-year-old director of seminal Brazilian films such as Rio 40 Graus (Rio 40 Graus) and Vidas Secas and founding father of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement of the 1950s and ‘60s (which itself was inspired by Italian Neo-Realism and French New Wave).
2. The film was entirely word-less – the goal being to tell Jobim’s story without relying on either the written or spoken word, but solely the medium of his own music, in this case 90 minutes of choice performances uninterrupted by narrative or interviews. Although the technique seems as deceptively simple as expertly splicing together a bunch of terrific – and often rare – You Tube clips, the results proved to be complex and quite dramatic.
Aside from the pure, unadulterated joy of being uninterruptedly immersed in Jobim’s music from the 1950s, when he teamed up with Vinícius de Moraes to compose “Felicidade” (“Happiness”) for the soundtrack to Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) to the 1990s (Jobim died in 1994 at the age of 67), there is the surprise of just how many performers over the decades, from all over the planet, covered Jobim classics ranging from “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”) and “Garota da Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”) to “Desafinado” and “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”).
I’d heard Jobim classics sung numerous times in both Portuguese and English, but never in German, Italian, and Japanese. Indeed certain songs, such as “Garota da Ipanema,” are repeated more than once. The different versions – sung in different languages, styles, and contexts – imbue the song itself with multiple layers of meaning and underscore the universal appeal of Jobim’s musical language. No translation necessary.
There were also the versions I’d heard before on records and CDs, but which came to life during the vivid performances given by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Gal Costa, and Nana Caymmi.
For the most part, the film traffics in close-ups, zooming in tightly on performers faces. The technique forges a compelling intimacy that can be heartrending in the emotionally-charged interpretations of tragic figures such as Nara Leão, Maysa, Elis Regina, and Judy Garland. (Uncovered by Dora Jobim on Page 100 of a You Tube search for performances of “Insensatez” (“How Insensitive”), Garland’s haunting rendition of the song is particularly ghostly due to a combination of the faded quality of the footage and the fact that it was filmed in the final months of her life).
However, there are plenty of other emotional registers at work as well, from utter camp (Italian performer Mina) and über-cool (a jaunty, smoke-ring blowing Sinatra) to the deliriously carefree swing of Elis and Tom bantering their way through one of the most contagious Brazilian songs of all time, “Águas do Março” (“Waters of March”).
The last shot of A Música Segundo Tom Jobim includes the only instance of written text (captions identifying performers, songs, and years are only included during the final credits). A famous quote from Jobim himself, it encapsulates the film perfectly: “A linguagem musical basta” (“The language of music is enough”)