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“This is Bossa Nova—The History and Stories”
In the late 1950s, when the first bossa nova recording by Brazilian icon João Gilberto hit the airwaves in Brazil, a teenager in Rio got an instant urge to learn the guitar. His mother found a relative whose college-age son gave classes, a certain Roberto Menescal. The instructor, who was to become one of the greatest living bossa nova composers, is profiled in a documentary feature film by his one-time student, filmmaker and screenwriter Paulo Thiago.

In “This is Bossa Nova: The History and Stories,” Menescal and fellow trailblazing composer Carlos Lyra tell the stories of the people, places and performances that put Brazilian music on the international music scene in the early 1960s, culminating in a 1962 performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. The film was screened on April 24 at the IDB’s Enrique V. Iglesias Conference Center, as part of FilmFestDC, the Washington, D.C., international film festival, drawing a capacity crowd.

Revolutionizing Brazilian popular music. The original Portuguese title of the movie, Coisa Mais Linda—História e Casos da Bossa Nova, is a play on the title of a song composed by Carlos Lyra and recorded by Gilberto, Coisa Mais Bonita. Like many bossa nova pieces, the lyrics, written by acclaimed songwriter Vinícius de Moraes, extol the beauty of a woman, of being in love and of love itself. Bossa nova reacted to the traditionalist theme of “Nobody wants me, nobody loves me” by talking about the beach, the sea and love, Menescal explains in the film. The music gets its distinctive sound from a distilled samba beat, a harmonic melody and the uplifting lyrics delivered in almost a whisper.

Menescal and Lyra take viewers on a tour of Copacabana, an area just south of downtown Rio where the two grew up, studied and made music. Sprinkled with anecdotes and extensively illustrated with guitar performances in living rooms and sun-drenched beaches in the neighborhood, as well as in concert halls, the film has a casual, intimate mood, yet it also fully documents the music.

For instance, Menescal tells the story of his most famous song, O Barquinho (“The Little Boat”). What was supposed to be a leisurely boat ride with friends took an alarming turn when the motor broke down and the party was stranded at sea. Menescal tried to lighten things up by plucking a perky tune on his guitar, which he always seems to have handy. Eventually another boat came by and towed them to safety. The next day, Menescal added upbeat lyrics about a boat sailing along on a calm summer day as the evening falls.

The artists. The film includes contemporary and archival footage of performances and interviews with other big name bossa artists, such as Antônio Carlos (“Tom”) Jobim, his son Paulo, and Astrud and João Gilberto. It also highlights a host of others that are less well known outside of Brazil, including celebrated muse Nara Leão, breakthrough female guitarist Wanda Sá, first-name-only singer Joyce and Vinícius collaborator Newton Mendonça. Also featured are Johny Alf, João Donato, Oscar Castro Neves, Bebeto and Leny Andrade, and Ronaldo Bôscoli. Brazilian journalists Tarik de Souza and Nelson Motta and writer Arthur da Távola provide additional background on the history and unique style of the music. Viewers came out of the two-hour film with a much deeper knowledge of the whole bossa scene and an overwhelming desire to hear more of the enchanting songs.

During a question-and-answer session after the screening, Thiago stressed that although the film is a documentary, he didn’t want it to be too formal, so he gave it a very conversational tone. The musicians are shown jamming in their living rooms and hanging out on the beach, linking the bossa nova beat to the crashing surf in the background.

“This Is Bossa Nova” was released in Brazil in September 2005, but has not yet found a U.S. distributor, Thiago said. The IDB screening was made possible through a partnership between the IDB Cultural Center, the Brazilian Embassy and FilmFestDC to spotlight Brazil, the site of the IDB’s Annual Meeting in April.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Please write to editor@iadb.org