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Monday, March 31, 2014

Tropicália

Latin American Film Series opens with Marcelo Machado’s documentary

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In 1964, Brazil’s military overthrew their country’s government and The Beatles’ music reached Latin America. The coincidence became the context for Tropicalism, the Brazilian counterculture that produced some astonishingly good music and became the alternative elsewhere for a rebellious generation trapped in a cycle of political thuggery.

Marcelo Machado’s documentary Tropicália is an impressionistic, magical mystery tour of a movement whose members distrusted movements, an ism for anyone wary of isms. Brazil had always been a cultural stewpot of confluences; on one level Tropicalism simply brought the national propensity for blurring Africa with Europe, the street with the salon, into the decade of flower power and electric guitars. But on another, it represented a radical “No!” to the status quo.

Tropicália includes snippets of Brazilian avant-garde film and theater seminal to the movement that rejected movements, but Tropicalism was mostly about music. Witness Os Mutantes, a rock band that drew the indigenous sounds of their country into the swirling psychedelic currents of Anglo-American rock. For a group whose colorful existence was interpreted by some as a rebuke to the steel gray of the military junta, Os Mutantes were given ample access to Brazilian television (many of their appearances are woven through the documentary). However, the authorities weren’t always so indulgent. Two of Tropicalism’s most prominent songwriters, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, were imprisoned and eventually exiled to Europe.

As seen in Tropicália’s concert footage, the performers often sparked riots of enthusiasm and recrimination. Many of Brazil’s leftist students denounced Tropicalism for “defeatism” and “Americanism”; for them, rock bands were the shock troops of imperialism. Rather than trade one mental prison for another, Tropicalism advocated freeing the spirit of creativity from the chains of ideology. As Veloso shouted at his detractors: “If you are the same in politics as you are in aesthetics, we’re done for!”

Tropicália opens the 36th Annual Latin American Film Series at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 4, at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre. The festival runs through April 10, and includes titles from Panama, Costa Rica, Haiti, Argentina, Cuba, Chile and El Salvador. For information, visit uwm.edu/clacs/filmseries. Admission is free for all films.