The film opens with Chico staring out of the window to view, the old streets of La Havana. Just as the city itself has deteriorated over time, so has Chico’s motivation for life. He changes the radio station only to find that most of them are broadcasting Fidel Castro’s speeches, but then he finally finds one, playing music. It’s the Melodies of Yesterday playing on the radio. The song takes him back to the Havana of his youth where he met Rita.
Chico and Rita met in 1948 before the revolution when Havana was a bustling city with colorful streets, historical buildings, large casinos, fancy hotels and bars. Back then, musicians gathered freely to play and sing without fear that the government would shut them down. From the moment Chico met Rita, they were drawn to each other, but neither wanted to show it, so they played hard to get until Rita decides to join his group of friends. Later, in the middle of the night, when everyone goes home, Chico plays the piano as she sings to the melody in a shoddy bar. On the screen, Rita’s voice moves along with her curves underneath a yellow dress, twirling about and giving sensual glances and smiles at Chico.
Just as their romance quickly begins, it erupts into anger when Rita discovers that Chico has a woman on the side; though he doesn’t actually care for her. Chico continues to chase Rita until she agrees to sing with him in a competition. They win and eventually get offered an ongoing singing gig at a famous hotel. Through one misunderstanding or another, they are once again embroiled in an inconsolable argument, and Rita abandons Cuba for New York City, thinking Chico betrayed her.
The paring of the animation and music creates a sultry world where characters seem to naturally fall in love. La Havana has a magical quality with illustrious architecture. The detailed chromatic animation, done by artist Javier Mariscal, captures the tone and mood of Cuba and New York City in the late 1940s and 1950s. The directors (Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando) were actually able to replicate many of the streets from photo archives the Havana city government had kept since 1949. We also get views of the urban, sometimes snowy landscape of NYC. When Chico and his friends arrive to New York City, they witness their first blanket of snow. They also visit Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, and famous hotels and music venues like the Village Vanguard where many Jazz legends played. Much of the soundtrack includes original Jazz and Bolero standards by Cuban Jazz legend Bebo Valdes Valdés.
The music and drawings are favored over longer dialogue and character development, to the point of leaving many things to assumption. Some characters appear one-sided, and without giving much time to reflecting on their actions. There are some missing scenes that could have been used to broaden out the story.
The film has a quick pace as we are taken from Cuba to New York to Paris to Las Vegas, as Chico follow’s Rita’s path. Between these moments the two try to stay together only to distance themselves once more because of their fiery tempers. When Chico returns to Cuba, he finds La Havana without music or life, now that his girl is gone.He sees the political situation worsening, with the onset of the revolution and Fidel’s communist government. Only the complaints of neighbors about the power outages can be heard. Rita was his heart and soul, which he expressed through piano melodies.
It almost seems unfair how destiny keeps playing with them, but it also seems silly how moments arise, which could have easily been solved, but yet, they give in to an absolute fate. “Why does it always have to be so dramatic?” should be a common thought, but maybe love and suffering go hand in hand for these two.