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FEATURE | TIFF23: They Shot The Piano Player And More Music On Film At The Festival

By Anya Wassenberg on September 11, 2023

They Shot The Piano Player (still courtesy of TIFF)
They Shot The Piano Player (still courtesy of TIFF)

Love of film and love of music can be wonderfully complementary. This year’s programming at the Toronto International Film Festival offers several screenings for music lovers of all kinds.

Music documentaries let fans delve beneath the surface of the music, sometimes with surprising results. Here’s a look at some of the screenings aimed at melophiles in the crowd.


They Shot the Piano Player (Dispararon Al Pianista) | Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal

Spain, France | 2023 | 103m | English, Portuguese, Spanish

Actor Jeff Goldblum narratives this inventive animated music documentary/drama. He plays the part of a New York City music journalist who loves Brazilian jazz. He’s researching a book on the genre when he first hears — and becomes completely enchanted by — the virtuosity of pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior.

Acknowledged as a master of the Brazilian jazz scene at its zenith in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tenório vanished late one night in March 1976 after playing a gig in Buenos Aires. It was shortly before the last of Argentina’s military coups, and the military police routinely prowled the streets looking for anyone they thought looked like a communist.

With his long shaggy musician’s hair and beard, tragically, Tenório fit the bill.

Jeff, the journalist character, returns several times to Brazil to interview anyone he can find, and eventually his book turns from an examination of the genre to a quest to find the truth about the pianist’s fate. Along the way, he hunts down relatives and former friends, family and lovers, but he also stops to listen to the music — and so does the audience.

It’s hard not to agree with the assessment of Tenório as the premiere pianist of his time. His playing is fluid in a way that sounds natural — yet could not possibly be natural, you’re thinking as you watch him play, even in the animated version.

The drawings are simplified and stylized, colourful against simplified animation. The film succeeds because of the marriage of music and engaging story set against the compelling visuals.

Along with the music, the documentary uses the recorded voices of the icons of música popular brasileira, including João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Vinicius de Moraes, Paulo Moura, and more.

Sadly, Tenório found himself at the wrong crossroads of time, during the 1970s when the infamous Operation Condor, a US CIA-backed policy implemented by the right-wing military dictatorships of South America, was implemented. The policy provided for arrest, detention, torture and assassination of anyone deemed a political dissident across the international borders of what is called the Southern Cone of South America, including both Brazil and Argentina.

Despite the shadow looming over the virtuoso pianist’s end, however, the film is above all an homage to his extraordinary gift, the music, and the mark he left on those who remain from that scene.

They Shot The Piano Player will be released theatrically in January 2024 in France, with other European (and hopefully North American) countries to follow.

Music Docs

Documentaries are always a strong thread at TIFF. This year’s Festival has seen the screenings of high profile pop docs like the 4K IMAX world premiere of Stop Making Sense, a re-release of the seminal 1983 rock film featuring the Talking Heads (both screenings sold out), and Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero. The latter’s premiere was delayed on Saturday, September 9 when a threat was made to security in the area of the red carpet. After security swept the venue, the screening proceeded about 30 minutes late, with Lil Nas in attendance.

Here’s a look at a few of the other music docs on offer.

In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon | Alex Gibney

United States of America | 2023 | 209m | English

It’s a world premiere for this film, which follows icon Paul Simon as he creates his new studio album Seven Psalms. He reflects on his 60-year career as he makes new music, a career that has had more than its fair share of ups and downs along with the artistic highs. Now 81, Simon is still making music, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney manages to capture an intimate portrait of him at a time when he can afford to be candid. Wife Edie Brickell also appears to perform a duet for the album. The film incorporates a trove of archival footage, some of it never before seen.

Remaining screening: Tuesday, September 12 3 p.m. (with closed captioning). Tickets here.

Hate to Love: Nickelback | Leigh Brooks

Canada | 2023 | 90m | English

Leigh Brooks’ close-up look at the Canadian band people love to hate (and perhaps hate to love?) gets its world premiere at TIFF this year, and the band themselves made an appearance for a street concert on the festival’s first weekend. Founded in 1995 in Hanna, Alberta, Nickelback hit everyone’s radar in 2001 when their first hit single How You Remind Me conquered the airwaves everywhere. A string of hits seemed to attract an about equal string of detractors, but the documentary lets the band take back their own story: just a group of guys united by a love of music.

One more screening on Friday, September 15 at 12:05 p.m. Tickets here.

Musical on Film

Along with the music documentaries, there are a smattering of films where the music plays a role in the drama, like Montréal filmmaker Chloé Robichaud’s Days of Happiness (Les jours heureux — interview and review to come), Janis Pugh’s Chuck Chuck Baby, and John Carney’s Flora and Son. Then, there’s Dicks, The Musical… which is in a category by itself.

Dicks: The Musical | Larry Charles

United States of America | 2023 | 86m | English

TIFF saw the world premiere of Dicks, The Music, the creation of writer/director Larry Charles, responsible for hits like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Borat.

It’s easy to see where this is going. Be forewarned, the language in the follow clip is NSFW:

The musical comedy riffs off the family film classic The Parent Trap and its story of identical twins who plot to reunite their divorced parents. In this case, mom and dad (Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally) are disturbed individuals (to say the least). Twins Craig and Trevor are both salesmen, and both, let’s just call it generously endowed in a similar way. They figure out they’re twins, and, in song and dance, the story follows their ensuing adventures. The cast also features Megan Thee Stallion, Aaron Jackson, Josh Sharp, and Bowen Yang.

Leave your pearls at home.

There’s one more screening left at TIFF on Saturday, September 16 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets here.


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