I Am Not Cuba
But Chico & Rita Is a Sexy, Jazz-Soaked Cartoon You Will Love
I love this film. I have reservations about this film. First, the love: Chico & Rita is a simple story about what makes great music and art: sex. Much like magnetism and electricity are two sides of the same force, the energy that generates erotic desire (fucking, sucking, kissing, stroking, fingering) is one side of the same energy that generates musical beauty (singing, blowing, playing, jamming, drumming). Directed by the Spaniard Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque) and set mostly in the late 1940s, this animated feature opens in a Havana that's often imagined as the twilight of Cuban cultural richness. Here, the bongo rhythms of former Cuban slaves freely mix with the technical innovations of jazz modernists in New York City, Havana's old-world architecture mixes with a new-world urbanism, and the seminal fluids of dark handsome men mix with the lubricative fluids of pale women.
Indeed, this is how the film begins: Chico and his best friend, Ramón (both black), enter a bar with two young American women (both white). They drink, they speak broken English, they dance to loud jazz. Then something wonderful happens: A beautiful black woman takes to the stage and sings a love song. Her name is Rita. Her voice mesmerizes Chico, who happens to be an emerging pianist. She sees him staring at her. Her song seduces him, and, later, his piano performance at another club seduces her. At the end of the night, they go to Chico's place, go into his bed, kiss, and fuck. The next morning, nude Rita (the animators made sure she has perfectly shaped breasts and a thick bush) walks around the room; seminude Chico (no shirt but pants on—we never see his bush or equipment) is playing a piano. This is the beginning of a love affair that will launch their musical careers. Rita will eventually go to Los Angeles and become a famous singer/actress; Chico will go to New York City and become a famous pianist of the modern jazz movement. The love that brought them together, however, is also the love that will tear them apart.
The animation is visually stunning, particularly the Havana scenes. And you cannot get enough of the hot, lush, sensuous Cuban jazz, which was composed by the still-living Bebo Valdés (he is 93), a Cuban pianist of the "golden age." This brings me to my reservations about the film. Though Chico & Rita is critical of pre–civil rights America, it is clearly uncritical of pre-revolutionary Cuba. This place is pictured as a paradise that was destroyed by the mean-spirited socialists. But what kind of paradise is filled with men and women who have no other way to make a living than to sell their bodies to American tourists? When it comes right down to it, Rita is a prostitute and Chico a gigolo.
Think of Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 masterpiece I Am Cuba; think of that black prostitute who is fucked for a small fee by a rich white American. Recall how she looks (not healthy and proud like Rita, but miserable and drowned in booze); that look is much closer to the truth. Sure, Chico & Rita has great music and imagery, and I agree that sex is the root of the arts, but ultimately, it's as much a fantasy as Lady and the Tramp.