SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 169 June 2013

Tropical storm


Directed by Marcelo Machado (87 mins, certificate 12A)

Theatrical release, 5 July – DVD release, 7 July

Reviewed by Manny Thain

Tropicália was a dynamic influential cultural movement emerging for a short time in late 1960s Brazil. A collective mixed music, dance, theatre, visual and performance art, fusing diverse Brazilian folk traditions with rock/psychedelia. The group’s leading figures – including Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa – would influence much of modern Brazilian music. Their movement is cited today by musicians from further afield, such as the US-based musician/artist, David Byrne, and English singer/songwriter/producer, Damon Albarn.

This film concentrates on an intense period, 1964 to 1972, using archive material and interviews with the main protagonists. It is a well-edited, fast-paced and lively piece of work, clearly a labour of love for director Marcelo Machado, who grew up to a Tropicália soundtrack.

The year 1964 is a key one for Brazil. On 31 March, right-wing army commanders seized power, plunging the country into what would be two decades of military rule. Although the film does not refer to this specific event, the dictatorship provides the backdrop to all that happens in it.

Tropicália, which is described in the film as "more than a musical movement, a kind of utopia", was not overtly political. Its leading lights actually attempted to distance themselves from the radicalised, left-wing political movements of the time. Yet, it was a challenge to authority. It was wild, free-flowing, avant-garde. It emphasised public performance, audience participation and street theatre. Performances in universities ignited passionate debates, half the audience applauding, the other half shouting down the performers. Tropicália was the cultural antithesis of military dictatorship, and it is incredible that it survived under such a brutal regime, even for such a short time.

Nonetheless, the Tropicália movement was becoming increasingly politicised. A turning point came on 28 March 1968, when students protesting against rising food prices in Rio de Janeiro were attacked by the military police. One of the students, Edson Luís, was shot dead at point-blank range. Up to 100,000 people turned out for the funeral, unfurling banners: ‘Ditatura assassina!’ Mass arrests followed. The mood fed into Tropicália lyrics and slogans: "I say no to no". "It’s forbidden to forbid". "Be an outcast, be a hero".

These events are portrayed eloquently by Machado. A glaring omission of his film, however, is the lack of any reference to the revolutionary events sweeping across the world in 1968. After all, the mass radicalisation of the 1960s – across the capitalist and Stalinist worlds, and including the colonial revolutions – is an essential context into which the political and cultural movements in Brazil also fit.

Repression was cranked up. A succession of decrees restricting political/democratic rights turned the screw ever tighter. People were rounded up and jailed arbitrarily. Gil and Veloso tell their own Kafkaesque tale. Not charged with any crime, they were sent to prison in February 1969 for three months, then held under house arrest for a further four months. The regime did not know what to do with them but, clearly, did not want them around.

Gil and Veloso were exiled, ending up in London where they continued making music in a tight group of friends and family. In the process, the new Brazilian music was introduced to a wider audience, including at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970.

At the first opportunity, in 1972, they returned to Brazil. And, apart from tying up a few loose ends, this is essentially where Marcelo Machado’s remarkable film ends. Although politically lightweight, it is a tantalising glimpse into this group of musicians and performers, whose influence reaches into the present day.

By way of a footnote, military rule continued in Brazil until 1985. Gilberto Gil would become minister of culture (2003-08) during the Lula presidency.

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