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CIMM Fest: "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" and "Tom Zé: Astronauta Libertado"

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 22, 2010 4:40PM

2010_2_22cimmfest.jpg This is part of Chicagoist's coverage of the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival, which runs March 4-7.

The typical path of the contemporary movie musical is depressingly familiar: it's based on a hit stage show, which was based on a hit song/play/movie/fetishized nostaglia property. Not Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. It's a complete original.

A disarming, unlikely blend of grit and whimsy, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench sketches out a rather simple story. Over the opening credits, which function as a kind of overture, jazz trumpeter Guy and free-spirit Madeline meet, fall in love, begin a relationship, have a falling out, then break up. And naturally they spend the rest of the movie gradually moving towards a reconciliation.

The plot is simply an excuse for some great songs; but unlike many other musicals, the songs pop up at the most unexpected times. During a noisy, crowded party a young man suddenly breaks off his conversation and starts tap dancing. Madeline's melancholy stroll through the park turns into a full-fledged ballad. Shot in beautifully grainy 16mm, it has the effect of M-G-M splashing down in the middle of a Cassavetes film. It's exhilarating. But it just wouldn't work if the songs themselves weren't top notch. Luckily, Justin Hurwitz provides an insanely catchy score which mixes bop and Michel Legrande-style orchestration (to heighten the link to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg there's even a song in French.)

The singing and dancing (often in sneakers) is hardly polished, but this is a movie more concerned with atmosphere and feeling than technical ability. As Guy, Jason Palmer plays his own trumpet onscreen and it's definitely within spitting distance of his idol Clifford Brown. When he takes an extended solo during the utterly charming finale, you realize what a special movie this is.

2010_2_22cimfest2.jpg Culturally speaking, one of our greatest regrets is missing Tom Zé's Chicago debut, a May 1999 show at Park West featuring Tortoise as his backing band. Talk about a powerhouse! That exciting cross-cultural and cross-generational fertilization is at the heart of the excellent documentary Tom Zé: Astronauta Libertado.

Still less well known than the fellow Tropicalismo figures such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes he started out with, Zé soon forged his own path rooted in a very earthy surrealism and a catchy but unorthodox melodic sense. (His fiercely devoted wife and manager Neusa reminds him, "You've got to make music that people will listen to while they do the dishes.") From growing up dirt poor in Brazil's northeast his music also has a sort of cheerful sadness, for lack of a better term; he first appeared on the Brazilian TV show Ladder to Success playing a song called "Ramp to Failure," and because his village had no TV he wasn't able to watch it. By the late 70's he was building a complex, handmade gadget which featured multiple tape loops rigged to a control panel; in other words, one of the very first samplers. But by the mid-80's he'd fallen into such obscurity that he gave up music and moved back to the countryside to manage a cousin's gas station. It wasn't until David Byrne stumbled across his old albums and signed him to Luaka Bop in the early 90's that Zé began to record and perform again.

The documentary only features Byrne in a brief archival clip, and we don't hear from any other international musicians. The focus is squarely on Zé, as boisterous and energized as a kid even at the age of 73. We see him in excerpts from several concerts, including a triumphal appearance at a university campus, and leading a musical workshop. Watching him joyfully interact with younger musicians, and clearly digging what they're up to, we couldn't help but think of Yoko Ono's concert in Brooklyn last week: an elder spokesperson fully in tune with today's music and still leading the way by example. But as invigorating as this documentary is, you have to go straight back to the music to really get the full picture.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench screens at Heaven Gallery on March 6 at 8:00pm; Tom Zé: Astronauta Libertado screens at St Paul's Cultural Center on March 5 at 5:30pm