The key players of the Brazilian Tropicália wave assemble for a doc that's not worthy of their talent.
Amassing lively and striking archival footage, Marcelo Machado’s documentary Tropicália sets out to give us just a feel for the eponymous cultural movement. Originating in Brazil in the late 1960s, Tropicalia encompassed live art, experimental film and a new, pioneering popular music that, all of it, reveled in autonomy from the country’s dictatorial regime. Impossible to define its aesthetic exactly, the film admits defeat at the outset, explores it – this is its ‘take’ – trusting rightly to the music of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and five-piece folk-rock band Os Mutantes to sound the greatest achievements of the artist-collective.
For a non-Portuguese speaker, the film’s opening twenty minutes – a riot of first-person testimonies, subbed and captioned – is hard to follow. Add to this an uncorroborated mix of liquid lightshow psychedelia and scrapbook visuals (taking Scotch Tape and Sharpie to monochrome documentation) and it’s like sitting a music and a history lesson at the same time, through field glasses: confusing.
The music – raw, sexy – is brilliant, but the angle is wrong. By stating and re-stating and making academic the woolly multiplicity of Tropicália, the film objectifies the movement and pulls away from the contoured human experience of its main players. Several rich veins might have allowed for an initial foothold: Caetano, for example, whose smile alone could power a biopic, or the culture for broadcasting competitive live music on television, which caused consternation for the Tropicalistas and their ideological fans. How did these artists – with their “warrior happiness” – reckon with the ambiguity of cooperating with TV stations and their corporate sponsors in the midst of aggressive anti-capitalist, anti-American feeling?
The film’s most exciting footage falls into this category (there might not exist such noisily elating sound-capture as taped from these studio audiences) and nowhere is the film more compelling than in a recording of Caetano Veloso berating from on stage Brazil’s politicised student faction for their dismissal of the Tropicália onda.
The film’s end credit sequence seems to gesture, finally, to ephemerality, as the older Caetano and Gil, set separately before a projection, sing along to one of their hit compositions. What do they feel when they watch back the footage, and what place has their reaction in a film so libertarian and unspecific? It may only be remembrance, nostalgia, but their shared look seems to speak of a loss – of purity, vitality, belonging? – of a perfect contemporaneity that’s finished. Sadly, this kind of speculation is discouraged by the film’s generic arc. It’s a shame.
Asif Kapadia’s Senna set us on the trail of Brazilian culture, and this one’s actually Brazilian made.
Enjoyable, if all over the place – but not nearly analytic or insightful enough.
There’s a reason so many contemporary musicians take inspiration from the Tropicália sound. It’ll walk you to the music store the morning after.