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Youthquakes in Brazil Nothing New: Tropicalia Director Explains

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Student riots and revolution repeat themselves. So what made the Brazilian art movement Tropicalia unique? What exactly is Tropicalism?, a TV host asks Caeteno Veloso--Brazil's answer to Jimi Hendrix--at the start of Marcel Machado's new documentary. To be honest, the longer I watched Machado's Tropicalia, the more questions I had--and the more exhilarated and intrigued I became by the dazzling 60s footage that showed me some of the sulkiest, most subversive and casually cool hipsters I'd ever seen. Did I also mention incredibly talented? Though unfortunately not as well-known as their Anglo-American counterparts, artists like Caeteno, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, and Os Mutantes were forces as aesthetically diverse as Brazil's own melting-pot population. Facing imprisonment and exile, Tropicalia's music was their ultimate Molotov Cocktail against political oppression and traditional modes of self-expression. In search of answers, I decided to approach the director himself.

Christine Jun: Tropicalia appears to have been a very short-lived movement--did it change anything for most people in Brazil?
Marcel Machado: The movement lasted for no more than a year. Even before they were imprisoned, the Tropicalists were talking about the end of it and did its funeral on a TV show. They did not pretend to be the leaders of the Brazilian revolution: they were aware of their role in the mass-media and how ephemeral all these movements and fashions are. To take it too seriously would have been a mistake.

CJ: What inspired you to make the film?
MM: The quality of the music they made. I grow up in a post-Tropicalist Brazil listening to Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Os Mutantes. The interest of the younger generation for this kind of music was another strong incentive. The music the Tropicalists made is still alive and a strong source of inspiration for many musicians around the globe.

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CJ: Is the movie a political statement? Is there a reason why you didn't explicitly go into Brazil's political history for the viewer?
MM: Its not a political statement and was originally made for Brazilian audiences. So I didn't consider the need to be didactic about the origins of the Brazilian military dictatorship.

CJ: How much did Tropicalia contribute to the commercialization of Brazilian music?
MM: Pop culture is banal and commercial in its essence. Most of the Tropicalists knew it and took the chance to reflect it as well as other self-contradictions of their work. This is one of the most interesting points of the movement for me.

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CJ: Why were Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso imprisoned? Why did they decide to move to London?
MM: The police took them from their homes in São Paulo and brought them to Rio de Janeiro. They were under arrest from December 1968 to February 1969. After being interrogated, the military forced them to move to Salvador. After three months of home arrest and no possibility to appear in public for concerts, they asked to leave the country. For musicians like them, London was a mecca at the time, a natural destination.

CJ: Do you consider Tropicalia to have been a rather male-dominated movement?
MM: Well, with Gal Costa and Rita Lee becoming two of the biggest influences for Brazilian girls, I couldn't find a way to call it sexist.

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CJ: Are Brazilian youths today familiar with Tropicalia's history and impact? Does it continue to influence them?
MM: Yes. In the music scene it's especially visible, from Nação Zumbi and Chico César, to Carlinhos Brown and Lucas Santana. There is also Marisa Monte, Garotas Suecas, Jupiter Apple, Rodrigo Campos, Curumim, Beto Villares, Rómulo Froes, Vanessa da Mata, Cidadão Instigado, Kassin, Flú, Céu and so many others.

CJ: Do you see any connection or similiarity between the political unrest in Brazil during the late 60s student riots and what is going on now today in the news?
MJ: There are some similarities - both protests started with students demanding better conditions and trying to break down tough social divides. But its important to remember that forty-five years have passed, and Brazil is now a democracy, a completely different political environment.

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CJ: Tropicalia seemed to be many things to many people, redefined over time and changing circumstances---for you, what was the essence of the movement?
MM: Brazilian popular music, at one of its best moments. In spite of all of the ideas, images, and intentions, I think the music shines out, above all.

CJ: Any surprising challenges to making Tropicalia?
MM: The research took a lot of work. Brazil doesn't have an established tradition of archival so most of the material we got was in poor condition; restoring old films and videos consumed a lot of time and money. And there were a lot of very important documents that just disappeared for political reasons or out of carelessness. By doing photo and table-top animation we recreated sequences and brought back important episodes. I hope British audiences--who are used to having the most organized archives in the world--can truly understand and value our work.

Tropicalia opens July 5th 2013 in the UK.

Still interested? Watch Tropicalia's trailer:

All photos courtesy of Eduardo Piagge.