directed by Guto Barra
(Brazil, 90 minutes)
May 29, 2010 1:00 PM, SIFF Cinema
May 31, 2010 5:00 PM, Kirkland Performance Center
A history of the hot, smart, sometimes completely surreal, and awesomely art-pop sounds of Brazil, its various musical milieus studiously explained and passionately woven together for American significance by Guto Barra, who directed Clash of Cultures, the 2004 ode to the New York Electro scene at the turn of the century.
Made in 2009, Beyond Ipanema begins in the 1940s and includes quotes and footage from all the names you may associate with Brazilian music — Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Os Mutantes — and those not from the country but have made use of the nation’s creative spirit and sound, such as David Byrne, Frank Sinatra, and Stan Getz. As Gil says, “On any corner you can find the Brazilian influence in American music.” Byrne adds, “For most countries the main export is sugar or coal. For many years the main Brazilian export has been culture. You can’t say that about too many other countries.”
Carmen Miranda arrived in the States in 1939 for Hollywood Goes Bananas on Broadway, and as Veloso says, “She was a major event.” Carmen was already Brazil’s biggest star when she was “discovered” by Broadway producer Lee Shubert. DJ/artist Ursula 100 says of her work, “Her records may sound kitschy but they’re actually pretty cool.” Punk-spawned era New York’s avant-sage Arto Lindsay says, “It was the first Brazilian music we ever heard.” By 1945 Miranda was the highest paid woman in the United States — and she insisted that every single one of her films had one or more songs in Portuguese. American audiences couldn’t understand her speedy, intense vocalizing, but likened it to the contemporaneous jazz scatting. Her “Mamae Fu Quero” was recorded hundreds of times, assuring that her melange of tropical music from the rich diversity in Brazil lived on long after her passing away in the mid-50s.
“She both represented and was a forgery of the style,” the film asserts, which is where the cultural cabaret of Brazil begins to reflect itself and the way others viewed it at the same time. This aesthetic would become pivotal for a later, more artistically expansive and socially subversive Brazilian music called Tropicalismo, “which played with ambiguities and offered a kind of loving and humorous commentary about such things.” As critic and songwriter Nelson Motta says, “(Tropicalismo) was an avant-garde movement with big artistic ambition.” Devendra Banhart admits that when he and his American friends heard these sounds “we were jealous of it; this really amazing music coming out of a revolution.”
Record collector and critic Greg Caz describes the Tropicalismo sound as a mash up of “Beatles, French pop, rock and roll, folk music — but the Brazilian thing at the bottom of it you could never take out.” Brazilian music wasn’t just exported exoticism now but “had the courage to be intelligent — which is why it’s still popular all over the world.”
Lindsay is who informed Byrne about the music’s cultural significance after the latter found a copy of a Tom Ze album (Samba) in a used record store in the late 80s and had that universal “WTF?” moment at seeing the barbed wire on the cover, “and hearing music that sounded more like it was made by people in downtown New York” than a faraway tropical country. Byrne started the label Luaka Bop, putting out albums and compilations by Ze and a summation of Os Mutantes’ first three LPs to take Tropicalismo to the world.
Although New York Times critic Jon Pareles mocked this as part of the “world beat” movement at the time (which he admits in the film that he’s sorry for) Byrne was putting out sounds “that wouldn’t fit into any other category.” “I think it was good that those people said, ‘Pay attention to Brazil,” Pareles says now. A Brazilian critic described Byrne as “unlike most Americans, analyzing our talent for transformation.” Ze’s work in particular was crucial for this vision; he was the most experimental artist of those under the Tropicalismo umbrella. When Byrne had first heard Samba he asked Lindsay, “What do you know about this? Are people making music like this all over the world?”
Lindsay says the resonant quality of Brazilian music has a lot to do with its consistent love of “pop art.” As artist Zelia Duncan says, “It’s why the music is still so important today.” “It’s the collage way of doing music,” as Byrne describes. “The way that they do it with samplers now but they did it in Brazil with analog live.” The revival of Tropicalismo never ended from the 90s boom, as Os Mutantes were excitedly received as the headliners at the 2006 Pitchfork Music Festival.
It’s at this point in the documentary that Barra returns to 1958 and traces warm sambas, cool jazz, and the mix of musics that would happen at Rio de Janeiro. Carnival would introduce Brazilian musicians to each other and be the biggest, most flamboyant musical event in the world for some time to come. Then came Black Orpheus, which introduced the Bossa Nova to American audiences. Besides that movie (“which helped put the foot of Samba in the door”), “the first evangelists of Brazilian music were the American jazz musicians.” In 1962, West Coast cool jazz icon Stan Getz experimented with Charlie Byrd on the Jazz Samba LP. It became a worldwide hit.
Eric Hilton of the Thievery Corporation remarks about how ubiquitous the Sergio Mendes album (’66) was in socializing anywhere in the era, “because everyone owned a copy. It’s what people would pop on to listen to while they drank their martinis.” Eventually that everywhere-ness was going to end up being picked up by mainstream American pop music, even if the first big Bossa Nova concert in New York “ended up a total mess.” Strangely, Bossa Nova was embraced by renowned critics of musical sophistication, at the same time as being seen as a dance music trend like “the Twist.”
Meanwhile, Getz had followed his previous success with Getz/GIlberto and that is the album that gave the world the version of “Girl From Ipanema” that most of us know, sung by Astrud Gilberto. It’s unfortunate that this version of the song itself couldn’t be used in the film; it’s sung here by a roots band that doesn’t convey the delicate sensuality of the original 1964 worldwide hit-beyond-hit. It’s a strange hole in the center of the movie, sort of like the Os Mutantes reunion concerts without Rita Lee. Besides this lack of the exact title track we should hear, there are some scenes unfortunately extended with unnecessary and gauche special effects used to elaborate narration and expand upon film clips.
Beyond Ipanema is an otherwise excellent selection for this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, particularly when it focuses on subjects like the owner of Tropicalia In Furs in the East Village, NY, who used to work as a shoeshine boy at Goldman Sachs to earn the money to buy his record collector’s haven. He lovingly shows a copy of O’Seis’s “Suicida” b/w “Apocalipse,” which during the end credits he packages up to send to a collector for several thousand dollars (and Barra shows photos of the lucky crate digger receiving it, his face flush with mad joy). That was a 7″ from an early incarnation of Os Mutantes, and perhaps the most rare and coveted side from Brazil. Also charming is a bit of the video Byrne made with Marisa Monte for a cover of “Waters of March,” from the Red, Hot, & Blue AIDS-benefit compilation, which is when a new generation of alternative music fans were first reawakened to Brazilian sounds.
Barra throws in assessments of crucial genres and “palettes of sound” in Brazilian music history and outreach, from Baile and (Jamaican dancehall-inspired) Favela Funk to the more crossover pop stylings of Bebo Gilberto; and appreciations in Japanese pop songs (a lot of which feature the Bossa Nova beat), with love from Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, which blended American hip-hop with various Brazilian sounds; arriving at CSS (which means “I’m Tired Of Being Sexy”) with their breakout song, “Music is My Hot, Hot Sex,” which found its way on to Seattle’s Sub Pop label in 2003. Eventually, we meet up with M.I.A., whose early music “combined heavy metal, with Miami bass, with kids screaming,” confesses that she turned in her first album. thinking it was the best it could be, but then heard Favela Funk and recalled it, realigning her vision with her newfound “private joy.”
“Little by little, the world is becoming more like Brazil,” Byrne says, “in complexity, fragmentation, variety.” An artist named Otto adds, “Music has no identity anymore, it belongs to musicians in general.”