Tom Zé Gets Into The Spotlight

andybeta | August 17, 2007 11:05 am
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[/videoembed]Ed. note: Here’s another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he looks at the 2006 documentary Fabricando Tom Zé, which looks at the life of the Brazilian musician.

Fabricando Tom Zé (Fabricating Tom Zé), directed by Decio Matos, Jr. Brazil, 2006, 89 min.

I was a high school punk, all but guaranteeing that whatever music I liked, the parents would hate. (Wait, think that just meant I was a teenager.) Guitar feedback, tonsil-ejecting screams, caveman drumming–I reveled in such ejaculatory noise, as did all of my high school friends. We were quite smug in our urbane embrace of all sorts of sonic offal, be it the Swans or the Geto Boys. That is, until that fateful day when my best friend’s father played us a disc of “world music” called Brazil Classics Volume 4: The Best of Tom Zé, as compiled by Talking Head David Byrne (who was never punk enough for my tastes).

It seemed pretty bland at first, jerky acoustic guitars, those hand drums that Paul Simon liked in the ’80s, untranslatable chants. At least until the third track, “Toc,” came on. The guitar sounded like someone in need of a sugar fix, and the track kept tightening, twitching like a rubber band, getting weirder, more nerve-wracking, until I heard my best friend’s mom start vacuuming in the next room. No, wait … that was the music itself! This Brazilian guy had made an instrument out of that?

Weird, enervating noises emanating from both instrument and mouth continue to inform Tom Zé’s music. For example, check out this South Park-esque video from last year. Without reservation, the Brazilian madman had a profound impact on that mental gatekeeper in my head who determines what is and isn’t music, and it continues to this day, much to the chagrin of roommates and girlfriends alike. So when a recent survey of Brazilian film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art included a screening of the 2006 documentary Fabricando Tom Zé, I was in attendance. Here’s the trailer (in Portuguese, alas):

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Director Decio Matos Jr. (of no relation to our own Jackin’ Pop editor) is a close friend of Zé’s, no doubt giving him unguarded access to the man. We get a glimpse into the classroom he attended as a small boy (one of the instances in the film where a snatch of superfluous animation appears) and Zé boasts to the camera: “What saved me is I’m a terrible singer, composer … (seeing) no difference between a piano and a vacuum cleaner.” Throughout the film, which mostly captures a world tour in 2005, Zé’s self-deprecating to a fault, laundry-listing his shortness, bad skin, ugliness, lack of talent, and illiteracy. Yet he doesn’t mind making bold announcements about his body of music: “When the geniuses come, they will have something to work with.”

As his music attests, Zé is a lively, erratic, combustible sort of fellow, creating new songs in the language of the country he’s playing (in Italy, he makes like Lil’ Wayne, in that he too has a song about “Giorgio Bush”), or spontaneously composing numbers during soundchecks, or on the tour bus en route to the venue. One classic scene involves a performance with an orchestra of industrial buffers shaving down go-go bells, producing rhythmic sprays of sparks.

Yet all of Zé’s intriguing quirks and outlooks on life don’t necessarily make for an interesting film. Despite Zé’s natural ability to rub both people and ears the wrong way, Matos seems hard-pressed for some grist, resulting in a sense of overstaking conflict between Zé and fellow Tropicalia founders Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Zé was crucial to the movement, penning the classic “2001,” which garnered Zé some notoriety when it was performed by Os Mutantes at the Parabelo Festival in São Paulo in 1967:

There certainly may be some truth to the fact that while Veloso and Gil remain the face of Brazil’s most popular musical export (even serving as cultural ambassadors) Zé resorted to taking a job as a gas station attendant to pay his bills, but it seems at most to be the result of a fussbudget who proudly embraces being acerbic, reclusive, and embittered, not some conspiratorial attempt on the part of Gil or Veloso. Or else it’s an example of what Morrissey once sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful.”

The film’s most tense moment occurs during a soundcheck at the Montreux Jazz Fest in Switzerland, when Zé decides that an unsympathetic soundman is yet another example of the “the Man” oppressing him and freaks the fuck out. In some small way, he erects a mountain out of a molehill, much like the film does, making this encounter out to be an ongoing conflict between First and Third World, rich vs. poor, white vs. black. Uh … hate to tell Tom, but I could walk into any bar right now, either around the country or around the world, and witness that “eternal struggle” between a self-serious musician and a douchebag sound guy.

It’s not as if Tom Zé hasn’t had his comeuppance. The film finally touches on how David Byrne’s discovery of Zé became a phenomenon right before it ends. Byrne called his discovery of Zé’s brilliant 1975 record Estudando O Samba akin to finding “a message in a bottle,” and its brave juxtapose of rural samba forms to urban noise remains jolting even today. By releasing Brazil Classics Volume 4: The Best of Tom Zé in the early ’90s, Byrne didn’t just bring international acclaim to Zé (creating fans like Beck, Tortoise, and Cibo Matto in the process), he also re-introduced Zé to his native land, which had long ago forgotten his peripheral presence in the Tropicalia movement.

A revisionist sense of history, sure, but the movie title does translate as Fabricating Tom Zé. And now Zé enjoys being a cultural icon of his country (well, as much as someone built for lifelong misery can actually derive pleasure from such status). While peers like Veloso and Gil long ago became pampered by success, by scrabbling all these decades, Zé’s music remains vital, bursting with new ideas. Unable to rest on his laurels, he puts it best in the film: “I have to make an invention every time.”

Bonus footage: