May 28, 2024

If there’s a pop musician of the last 60 years who deserves a great documentary, it’s Antonio Carlos Jobim. Some might bristle at my description of him as “pop.” In Brazil, where Jobim, one of the prime architects of bossa nova, is considered a national treasure, he’s simply thought of as a composer, placed on a pedestal along with classical Brazilian composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos. Jobim’s gorgeously complex chord structures — the aural equivalent of melty-colored Impressionist paintings — were arguably more jazz than pop.

Yet we’re long past the point where pop can’t include all that. Just consider Steely Dan’s “Aja,” an album of luminous jazz modalities that also happens to be the purest pop. Jobim, though he wrote in assorted forms, was quintessentially a composer of pop songs, and they had a tranquil forlorn incandescence all their own. There was something in the air in the ’60s and early ’70s, a beckoning romanticism that informed the work of three artists I think of as a holy trinity: Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, and Jobim. They were kindred spirits of wistful love songs who mingled devotion with the most delicate heartbreak. And they were all harmonic geniuses.  

So yes, the artistry of Jobim deserves the insightful cinematic exploration it has never quite gotten. I saw a tasty thrown-together Jobim documentary at Cannes in 2012 — “A Musica Segundo Tom Jobim,” which is nothing more than a shimmering assemblage of concert clips. (It was never distributed in the U.S.) And now we have “Elis & Tom,” a documentary that chronicles the creation of one of Jobim’s most celebrated projects: the 1974 collaborative album “Elis & Tom,” in which he provided the music for a series of songs sung by Elis Regina, the popular Brazilian chanteuse who had a voice of stunningly sweet rapture, like Jackie DeShannon crossed with Peggy Lee.

The album is great. Jobim and Regina are great. And the archival footage in “Elis & Tom” offers a handful of invaluable behind-the-scenes, inside-the-recording-studio moments. Yet given all that, it’s amazing how little the movie adds up to. I wish I could say that “Elis & Tom” is a must-see for Jobim fans, and maybe on some level it is, but the film is a bit of a shambles. It doesn’t so much capture the process by which a classic album was made as stumble through it, throwing random sidelong glances.

Brazil, in the ’60s, had a paradoxical relationship to bossa nova, the musical style that was like a more slowed-down, sensually opened-up complication of samba. The music would ultimately become a kind of national heartbeat. But just as it took the British Invasion to show America everything that post-Elvis rock ‘n’ roll could be, bossa nova first became big when American jazz musicians responded to its lyrical majesty and began to incorporate its elements. (We see a luscious clip of Jobim on television in 1964 with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.) And that didn’t always endear the music to Brazilians, who were fiercely protective of their culture.

Jobim, with his nickname of Tom, enjoyed international success, which for a while left Brazil ambivalent about him. In 1967, he recorded an album with Frank Sinatra — the only time in Sinatra’s career that he made a record composed by a single songwriter. In “Elis & Tom,” there’s a terrific clip of Jobim and Sinatra singing “The Girl from Ipanema” (the second most recorded song in history, after “Yesterday”), seated opposite each other in concert, Jobim, with his shock of dark hair, strumming his guitar, Sinatra holding a cigarette, the two going back and forth between English and Portuguese. In addition to being delectable, it’s an early moment of one-world rapture.

The film sketches in Jobim’s rise to fame, and Regina’s as well. By the time it gets to 1974, Jobim is living in an apartment on Sunset Blvd. and lamenting that bossa nova’s moment may be over. He was probably right; the music possessed a cha-cha-real-smooth sensuality that was very 1960s. The documentary features interviews with a number of the musicians and studio technicians who participated in the recording of “Elis & Tom,” and one of those observers makes the point that the Brazilians were all coming from a military dictatorship (which the country had lived under since 1964), and that in L.A. “they arrived in a city where everything was so free, modern, and open.” “Elis & Tom” channeled the free spirit of L.A. in the ’70s. It was as much an L.A. album as “Aja” was.

Yet in the MGM-recording-studio footage, we witness how Brazilian the musicians were — the jokes and the improv, with Jobim, then 47, surveying it all in his sweaters and glasses, and Regina with short hair and a gaze that whipsaws between imperious and vulnerable, her playful ebullience poised on a precipice of doom. She died of a drug overdose, in 1982, at the age of 36. She was an artist of single-minded intensity who found the world a difficult place, and was so testy that at first she didn’t even want to work with Jobim. Her singing had a lyricism that popped, whereas she found his music overly laidback; his magnificent chords caressed and receded. Yet there was ultimately an opposites-attract magic at work. “Elis & Tom” became one of the loveliest duets of all time.

One of the strange aspects of “Elis & Tom” is that a lot of the talking-head interviews present anecdotes that don’t fully add up. Jobim, in 1974, is described as being a kind of analog Luddite who obsessively favored acoustic instruments; yet the point is also made that his classic 1970 album “Stone Flower” featured Jobim at the electric piano. So which is it? There are fashionably cryptic comments like “She didn’t like him because she thought he would reject her.” And the idea that Jobim, in fighting not just to compose the album but to arrange and mastermind it, was acting like some sort of dictatorial guru is absurd. He was Antonio Carlos Jobim! Why shouldn’t the album have come straight from his hands and ears? He was actually a generous collaborator, and for all the descriptions of tension (including sexual tension) between himself and Regina, much of the footage we’re shown presents the two of them in effusive harmony.

And yet! Though the film begins and ends with “Waters of March,” “Elis & Tom” somehow manages to avoid offering any evocative description of how that timeless song was composed and recorded. This was actually the seventh version of it, though it had been written just two years beforehand. It’s the greatest song on the album; it’s the greatest song Jobim ever wrote; it’s one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. It’s also one of the only songs I know that I feel I understand better when I hear it in its native language than when I hear it in English. When the lyrics are translated, they sound (to me) like a garbled version of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” I have no idea what they’re about. But when you hear the definitive Portuguese version on “Elis & Tom,” with its wistful back-and-forth, its stairway to heaven that somehow descends, I know exactly what it’s about: that love is more beautiful than anything, and that it’s destined to end (at some point) in death, and that that’s the essence of its beauty. Jobim deserves a documentary as transporting as that song.

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