An animated movie made for adults, Chico & Rita opens with an old shoe-shiner Chico reminiscing about his past as he switches on the radio, with a drink in his hand, inside his ramshackle apartment in present day Cuba. The program he listens to is called “Yesterday’s Melodies”. As a lovely jazz song comes on, the camera moves in slowly for a close-up of his weary face as the scene dissolves to a flashback, transporting you to Cuba, 1948. In an instant, I remembered a lonely Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, slouched over a piano with a drink in his hand, as he reminisces about his past love affair with Ingrid Bergman.
Bogart does show up, much to my delight, in a dream sequence later in the movie. And he is not the only major Hollywood star to make a cameo. Marlon Brando shows up too, but not in a dream sequence. Nat King Cole gets a few seconds of screentime too. This is a rich, colorful and mesmerizing world of musicians, movies, and broken hearts. We learn that Chico used to be an incredibly talented and world class piano player who one day falls in love with an alluring singer named Rita. It’s a bittersweet love story that spans more than 40 years. One misunderstanding after the other, in addition to unexpected betrayals from unexpected corners, keeps them from being together.
Just imagine the love story in Titanic taking place over several decades, only better and with a different ending. The story takes the characters from the small towns and clubs of Cuba to the biggest musical halls in New York, Paris and the movie studios of Hollywood. The animation is dazzling but it’s the storytelling that trumps everything else here. It has the same immersive quality that some of the great movies like The Godfather had, enveloping you in sights and sounds that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise, making you forget your surroundings while doing so. It’s the kind of movie that comes along once in a lifetime – the kind that makes you say, “This is why I fell in love with movies in the first place.”