Championed by the likes of Talking Head David Byrne, Beck and eccentric Welsh songsmith Gruff Rhys, the popularity of this influential wave of Brazilian music has been gaining momentum for a number of years. Interest has now been deemed sufficient enough to warrant the UK theatrical release of Marcelo Machado’s insightful and engaging documentary, Tropicália (2012) (City of God director Fernando Meirelles is credited as one of its executive producers). A counterculture movement during the late 1960s, Tropicália was fuelled by the authoritarian regime imposed in Brazil at that time.
The movement produced a talented array of musicians who fused elements of the older established sounds of bossa nova and samba with US West Coast psychedelic music and the jangly pop sounds of The Beatles. Using a similar approach to the recent Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane (2012), Tropicália is a patchwork of archive footage, stills and lo-fi collages, stitched together with various voice-overs from leading figures of the movement. Some of those commenting actually crop up as talking heads towards the end of the film, adding a welcome poignancy.
Machado has painstakingly researched that era, and has unearthed plenty of rich period material. The fuzzy black and white television footage of key artists performing (including Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes) offers the fascinating sight of seeing this collective of odd-looking, experimental figures playing to Brazilian teens via the country’s mainstream TV. Veloso and Gil, (arguably two of the best-known musicians at that moment in time) were actually arrested, imprisoned and later exiled because to their political activism. A creative sojourn saw them take up residence in London, and the film deftly incorporates coverage from this time, including their appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival.
While Machado’s documentary offers historical and political context around the subject matter, what really shines through is the fabulous (and surprisingly accomplished) music created in Brazil during that period. Effectively taking centre stage, Veloso – the movement’s nearest equivalent of a Bob Dylan-like figure – is an incandescent presence in the film, and his soulful voice offers an appealing mixture of melancholy and hopefulness.
Tropicália may struggle to find much of an audience outside of those who are already familiar with that world, but it’s definitely well worth seeing if your interests lie within music or politics (or both). With the current anti-government flare-ups in Rio, it also acts as a timely and potent reminder that those with creative impulses can engage in political discourse and address the disenfranchised through other, equally effective channels.