It’s not every day that you get to go see a movie with someone who hung out with all the film’s main protagonists in the off screen realm.
However, this wasn’t the only reason I said “yes” when my friend Myra invited me to accompany her and her 70-something year-old friend, Fred, to a screening of the newly released and much-talked about Brazilian documentary, Tropicália. Directed by Marcelo Machado and produced by Fernando Meirelles (noted Brazilian director of City of God), Tropicália covers five years in the life of one of the most famous and fascinating Brazilian musical movements of all time: Tropicalismo.As a film, the documentary pays homage to Tropicalismo not just in terms of its images and soundtrack, but also in term of its bric-a-brac aesthetic.
Tropicalismo was born in 1967. At the time, Brazil’s military dictatorship was in full swing and its nascent television industry was reeling in millions of viewers who were tuning in to watch up-and-coming singers and composers compete in televised musical festivals. That year’s festivais took Brazil by storm as young, iconoclastic artists Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes (featuring Rita Lee) by performing two new compositions: Domingo no Parque (Gil) and Alegria, Alegria (Caetano). Both songs broke the mold of standard MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) by their heretic use of elements ranging from “imported” electric guitars of the Beatles to traditional pífanos (flutes) played by folk musicians of the Northeastern Sertão.
Channeling counterculture and rock n’roll, the increasingly radical postures of Caetano, Gil, and an eclectic and charismatic collective of other artists including Gal Costa and Tom Zé galvanized fans and critics throughout the country with their shows, albums, performances, and happenings that came to be known collectively as Tropicalismo. The Tropicalistas’ artistic and cultural, not to mention political, impact was so far-reaching that in 1970, Caetano and Gil were arrested by the military government. Their subsequent forced exile to Europe brought the movement to an abrupt end (although its many participants continued to forge impressive solo careers, many of which continue to this day).
As a film, the documentary pays homage to Tropicalismo not just in terms of its images and soundtrack, but also in term of its bric-a-brac aesthetic. Tropicalismo followed in the footsteps of Brazilian Modernism, which espoused the concept of antropofagia (i.e. cannibalism) practiced by Brazil’s indigenous people who ate their enemies in order to absorb their most admirable qualities. Like Modernists before them, the Tropicalistas believed in devouring aspects of the European and American vanguard as well as traditional Afro-Brazilian and indigenous cultures, with the aim of creating a contemporary music that was uniquely hybrid and inimitably Brazilian.
Tropicália hews to this precept by eschewing the talking heads that have become a fixture of musical documentaries. Instead, the film is constructed as a vibrant collage of news footage, video clips (some of them in dire condition), still photos, and animated images highlighted with the psychedelic graphics and colors of the time. The result is refreshingly raw and dynamic. It is also a little chaotic and could make some sequences difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with Brazilian popular music and the country’s turbulent social-political history of the 1960s and ‘70s.
However, even without fully grasping the finer context, the music and images are often extremely compelling in their own right. Machado and his crew spent years combing public and private archives in Brazil and abroad. They have come up with some never-before-seen gems such as Caetano and his first wife, Dedé Gadelha’s, legendary hippie wedding on a Bahian beach, complete with bikinis, boas, and plenty of paparazzi, and Caetano and Gil in exile giving deliciously heady Hendrix-worthy performances to tens of thousands at the Isle of Wight.
The interesting thing about the Tropicalistas is that the vast majority of them, including Caetano, Gil, Gal, and Tom Zé, were all born and grew up in Bahia. Before heading south to forge careers in Rio and São Paulo, they all spent their formative years living in Salvador which in the ‘50s and ‘60s boasted a small, but surprisingly vanguard intellectual and cultural elite, and a sizzling bohemian scene of which Myra’s friend Fred was an integral member.
Just how integral became apparent when we sat around drinking post-film espressos and listening to Fred’s recollections. Of being regularly arrested by the military police and tossed in jail for being “a hippie.” Of hanging out with icons such as Jimi and Jagger at the brothels of today’s tourist-infested historical center, the Pelourinho. Of Caetano flouncing around a central avenue at night in theatrical garb flamboyant enough to get him (and those brave enough to accompany him) beat up.
The final images of Tropicália linger on an outdoor show that Caetano and Gil gave in Salvador’s streets upon their jubilant return home from exile in 1972. When we exited the theater onto the very same streets, for a brief eerie, exciting and wistful moment, it felt as if we were walking into the past – or perhaps merely into a film.