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Film Reviews: They Shot the Piano Player & High & Low: John Galliano

Arts Review2024-3-14By: Marc Glassman


Tragic Lives of Artists

They Shot the Piano Player & High & Low: John Galliano

Reviews by Marc Glassman


They Shot the Piano Player

Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal, directors; Trueba, script

Animation documentary w/the voices of Jeff Goldblum (Jeff Harris) and the real João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Vinicius de Moraes (archival) and many more


High & Low: John Galliano

Kevin Macdonald, director

Featuring: John Galliano, Sidney Toledano, Anna Wintour, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Charlize Theron, Jonathan Newhouse, Andre Leon Talley (archive), Steven Robinson (archive)


Hi Adi and Jean. I’m calling you once again from the historic Greek city of Thessaloniki, which is hosting its 26th annual documentary festival. The opening night film, They Shot the Piano Player, happens to be starting its theatrical run in Toronto this week, a happy coincidence for me. It is lovely to see veteran Spanish director Fernando Trueba being honoured in Greece with a retrospective of his work, which has concentrated on the impact of jazz and Latin music on culture and politics.

His latest, They Shot the Piano Player investigates the dark mystery involving the disappearance of a talented Brazilian musician in Argentina in 1976. Francisco Tenório Júnior was an extraordinary pianist, considered to be one of the finest players in Brazil’s world-famous bossa nova movement. He was on tour, playing in Buenos Aires, accompanying the acclaimed poet and singer Vinicius de Moraes, when he went missing one night after going out unaccompanied at 2am. It was quickly surmised that he had been kidnapped by the military police of the Argentine dictatorship, but his fate was not officially recognized for decades.

Trueba has fashioned a brilliant film, which reconstructs this tragedy. Collaborating with the acclaimed multidisciplinary artist Javier Mariscal, the two have made an animation film, which gives a sense of life in Brazil in the past and present. Though it’s mainly a documentary with the voices of such famous musicians as João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil talking about their lost friend Tenório, Trueba has created a fictional framing device in which an American music journalist comes to Brazil to unravel the decades-old disappearance of the piano player. 

Using vintage recordings from the Sixties, Trueba evokes the talent of Tenório, who was a brilliant improvisor. He can be compared to the American jazz musician Bill Evans, and it was lovely to find out that they once met and had a great discussion together. But They Shot the Piano Player isn’t just a homage to a great musician. Trueba has researched the sinister Operation Condor, which was backed by the US and involved a conspiracy of state terror in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay in the Seventies and Eighties. Tenório’s death was just one of hundreds of thousands of human rights violations which took place during that time.

They Shot the Piano Player contrasts the beauty of bossa nova and jazz with the horrors of dictatorships. It’s a very impressive film.


High & Low: John Galliano, the other film I’m reviewing this week, is a stylish documentary by Kevin Macdonald, which contrasts the brilliance of fashion designer Galliano’s clothes with the revulsion people felt when he unleashed a stream of anti-Semitic rhetoric in a Parisian café in 2011. What caused the eminent designer to go berserk, yelling racist insults at innocent folks sitting in a posh café? Macdonald’s film, which has been made with the cooperation of Galliano and Vogue publishers Conde Nast, offers his excuse while telling us the colourful story of his life.

An outlandish British New Romantic stylist, Galliano emerged fully formed with a graduation show from London’s St. Martin’s school of art that stunned the fashion world. Based on Galliano’s fevered response to Abel Gance’s imagistic silent-era epic Napoleon, the show featured a crazy amalgam of 19th century costumes, vintage mid-20th century clothing and modern fabrics cut up into a montage of new fashion designs. Macdonald sees Gance’s Napoleon as a metaphor for the designer’s rise to power over the next decade. Using images from Gance’s film, revealing interviews with Galliano and footage from supporters like super model Kate Moss and the late Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley, we see him rise to the top, becoming Dior’s designer from 1997 to 2011. 

Macdonald is a virtuoso documentary director so it’s no surprise that he beautifully evokes Galliano’s extraordinary runway shows, which told crazy stories like the sexy “Empress Josephine meets Lolita,” or “Tramps,” a strange homage to homeless Parisians that made many people angry even twenty years ago. The doc makes it clear that Galliano was working too hard and drinking way too much especially after his best friend and assistant Steven Robinson died in 2007. 

And there we have it: Galliano’s excuse. He’d become an alcoholic and no longer knew what he was doing or saying. Apparently, Galliano didn’t realize that his boss at Dior, Sidney Toledano, was a Jew and that the face of Dior’s fragrance was the Israeli-born Natalie Portman. Or maybe he did. In any case, he’s spent time with a British rabbi, learned about Jewish history and has tried to make amends. Galliano has stopped drinking and is now the designer for Maison Margiela. It turns out, as the Washington Post’s Black fashion editor Robin Givhan puts it, you can have a second act if you’re a white male. 

Kevin Macdonald has made a film that looks like an apology but is too smart to be one. I recommend seeing High & Low: John Galliano. Thanks, Adi and Jean! Looking forward to chatting with you from London next week.


You can also listen to an audio version of Marc’s reviews below:



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