Chico & Rita – fifty years of a musical love story

Published On May 17, 2011 | By Richard Bruton | Comics, Reviews

Chico & Rita

By Javier Mariscal & Fernando Trueba


I’ll start this by telling you that the ending made me cry, which is always a good sign with a love story. Chico & Rita built so well, established and developed the characters so vividly that by the end, in a swell of emotional intensity, despite an obvious and cliched ending (but what love story doesn’t have a cliche or two?), it still got to me. And the tears came. Happy tears or sad tears? You’ll need to read it for yourself to find out. Trust me, it’s not a chore.

But lets take it right back to the start – the book is a fictionalised adaptation of the true story of Bebo Valdes, portrayed here as Chico Valdes, a Cuban piano player who dreams of getting out of Cuba and playing around the world. And within just a few short pages I was there, fully immersed deep inside a great, heart-rending story; emotional, musical, beautiful. A love story set against the very beginnings of the jazz age and travelling with the characters from pre-revolution Havana Cuba, to New York, Paris, Las Vegas and back to post revolutionary Cuba.

We start the book with Chico in modern day Havana, an old man, still shining shoes, weary and seemingly as beaten down by life as his Cuba is by decades of isolation. But as he settles back into his run-down apartment, switches on the radio and lets the music drift across his room, everything gets better, and in a half-smile in the final panel below the book nails everything about the power of music to transform lives:

And as the music drifts across the page, we’re transported back, via an old man’s memories, to a Havana of 1948; a vibrant, bustling, colourful place, alive with music and where Chico and his best friend, Ramon are hustling the Yankee girls, drinking, partying, having the time of their lives.

But Chico dreams of playing his music and to do that he needs a voice. And that voice comes in the beautiful, sensual and oh so troublesome form of Rita Martinez, a singer who perfectly suits Chico’s tunes, bringing them to life, filling them with emotion and beauty.

These two very strong characters, united by music, deeply attracted to each other, make a connection in that first meeting that will last them a lifetime. They’re two souls meant to be together, but circumstance, stubbornness and a series of selfish and stupid decisions conspire to keep them apart. The mechanics of the love story in Chico & Rita are old fashioned, almost predictable – but that’s never really the point. This isn’t about originality in the storytelling, it’s all about an emotional connection, about evoking a mood, just like good Jazz is meant to do.

Trueba and Mariscal imbue every page of Chico & Rita with a life, a vitality and a beautiful sensuality. The scenes between Chico & Rita simply smoulder and crackle off the page, and the attraction between them is immediate and immediately recognisable. But whilst Chico & Rita may be a love story between one man and one woman, it’s also a beautifully realised tale of music, it’s power and the love affair between a musician and his music.

We see the beginnings of a major time in music, where Jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker would transform music, all influenced by the unique percussive rhythms coming out of Cuba. And although it’s presented as an accompaniment to the love story, it’s this music that fills every page.

All the way through Chico & Rita the music is always vitally important, and just as Chico & Rita struggle to hold their love together, the story also tells the story of Chico’s musical career, just as dificult, just as troublesome, and ultimately just as doomed as the love affair.

The story’s payoff for me comes early, not with the romantic ending we’re all expecting in the last few pages, but just before, when the aged Chico, worn down by a lifetime trapped in Cuba, meets an American star and her producers, who’ve travelled to Cuba just to find him, just as the real life Valdes was rediscovered following Trueba’s 2000 documentary “Calle 54“.

And it was there, on that page below, with “Maestro“, where Chico realises that his music is important beyond Cuba, that his life’s work had touched the hearts of so many, it was there when the tears arrived.

So back to the start of this review. Tears came, just like I said. I’m an unashamed sentimental fool, and the very best romantic dramas need to bring me to tears – it’s one way I can tell that they’ve done the job well. Those tears that came down my face came not because of the romance of Chico & Rita but because of the final recognition of one man’s worth, his place in music, and the love affair he’d all but given up on.

As for the romance – you’ll just have to read the book to find out. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it.

Chico & Rita is  a beautiful, heartfelt and truly marvellous musical romance, a great graphic novel. But it’s also a great looking animated feature produced by Trueba. In fact, when I first looked at the book, having seen the trailer for the film, I was rather put off – I found the thick line work and simplified style a little off-putting, and even suspected, for a moment, that the graphic novel adaptation was one of those horrible film books – taking animation frames and turning them into panels.

So much so that I checked with the Doug Wallace at SelfMadeHero about the art, and he responded with this:

“Marsical and Trueba are the creators. They both worked with a wonderful Brazilian comics author who lives in Spain, Marcello Quintanilha, to help translate their animated feature into a sequential narrative in comics form. Trueba took the lead on the scripting, as he did on the film.”

“On the visual side, Marsical wanted the graphic novel to have a distinctive look and feel to distinguish it from the film. This was achieved by the looser drawing style and heavy outline inking. Mariscal comes from a studio background and so once he has hand drawn the characters and backgrounds and set the palette for each scene he handed each scene over to his team … who worked on the animated feature.”

Which happily set my mind at rest. And I settled down to the book, reassured. I’m so glad I gave it a chance. My initial response to the art couldn’t be further from where I find myself now – I’ve read it several times over the past few days, and every time my emotional response has become stronger and stronger.

I’m absolutely convinced by Chico & Rita. It’s a beautiful love story and thanks to the art I thought I didn’t like at first, it paints a vivid, lush and sensual portrait of Cuba, of it’s people, of the music that filled the air and fills every page and of two young lovers called Chico & Rita. Beautiful, utterly beautiful work.

And as an extra, here’s the trailer to what looks and sounds like an incredible movie I intend to see very soon:

Like this Article? Share it!

About The Author

Richard Bruton
- Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he's written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard's day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children's graphic novel library in the country.

2 Responses to Chico & Rita – fifty years of a musical love story