The soundtrack to Marcel Camus’ surprise hit film would introduce the world to the vibrant new sounds emerging from Brazil in the late-fifties; it stands as one of the most successful “cultural crossovers” of all-time.
In 1956, the Brazilian playwright Vinicius de Moraes premiered Orfeu da Conceição, a retelling of the classical Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in contemporary Rio de Janeiro during the Carnival celebration. The stage production featured music by Antônio Carlos Jobim, then an up-and-coming figure in Rio’s dynamic samba scene. The play – and its accompanying soundtrack – would prove to be a considerable success in Brazil, but it was merely a stepping stone en route to a global phenomenon.
Three years after its stage debut, Orfeu da Conceição would serve as the primary inspiration for Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus – the grand prize-winning entry at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Similarly set in Rio during Carnival, the film provided a tantalizing – albeit decidedly European – glimpse into Brazilian life. While the Frenchman Camus’ portrayal of Rio’s favelas was unabashedly romanticized, and the film’s depiction of happiness in poverty gave a grossly reductive view of its human subjects, Black Orpheus sparked a fascination with all things Brazilian, and – for better or worse – served as an ambassador for a rich culture that the “western world” was heretofore largely ignorant of.
Like many great/popular works of art, the legacy of Black Orpheus is marked by complexity. On one hand, it’s an unremittingly gorgeous film; Jean Bourgoin’s cinematography, and the vibrant “Eastmancolor” in which it is captured, are little short of dazzling. Equally alluring is the film’s all-Brazilian cast – with the exception of Eurydice, played by the Pittsburgh-born Marpessa Dawn. However, despite the lengthy efforts that went into capturing the look, sound, and feel of Carnival, one can’t help but wince – at least slightly – at the almost childlike depiction that comes from Camus’ attempt at “authenticity.” Though highly enjoyable, as the credits roll on Black Orpheus, one must remind themselves that they have watched a European film, as opposed to a genuinely Brazilian one.
Central to the runaway international success of Black Orpheus was the one element of it that remained the most unspoiled by European interference. While Camus borrowed heavily from Orfeu da Conceição, he desired an entirely different soundtrack – even though he still preferred to work with the play’s songwriter, Jobim. This would prove to be a wise move. While Jobim’s songs from Orfeu da Conceição were a critical part of the production’s charm and success, their more formal, classical manner would have undoubtedly clashed with the film’s visual aesthetic.
Instead, Jobim took inspiration from the sounds of the streets, marketplaces, and favelas which provide the film’s striking visuals. Inspired by the frevo and samba traditions of Brazilian folk music, Jobim also incorporated the bossa nova sounds that he himself had played a major role in popularizing; João Gilberto’s recent landmark album, Chega de saudade – released just months before Black Orpheus – had not only been produced by Jobim, but its best-known songs were also penned by him. Joining Jobim on the soundtrack was guitarist/composer Luiz Bonfá, who would ultimately write the film’s two most iconic songs.
Evaluating soundtracks is often fraught with complications that don’t accompany traditional albums: some are intrinsically linked to their visual counterparts; others work just as well, or even better, when divorced from their films; some are bolstered by fond associations with the movie; others succeed, in spite of a film’s shortcomings. Black Orpheus does not, at least for me, fit easily into any such category. I first heard the soundtrack several years back, while diving into Brazilian music at large for the first time. Conversely, I had never seen the film until preparing for this review. While elements of the movie have given me a more nuanced understanding of the music, I have ultimately remained stalwart in my assessment of Black Orpheus when taken solely as a listening experience.
The soundtrack begins, as does the film, with a staid scene that unexpectedly erupts in a colorful explosion. While the opening medley (“Generique”/”Felicidade”/”Frevo”/”O Nosso Amor”) largely tracks along with the film’s arresting opening sequence, it’s not done to 1:1 scale. The sense of continual movement expressed in the movie’s early moments is also evoked by the medley; it’s essentially a transient piece, constantly evolving, but maintaining a steady undercurrent that works in a similarly scene-setting manner to the film. Throughout the four songs contained within – the latter three of which are Jobim compositions – street sounds and dialogue from the film are interspersed in a way that could prove distracting to some, but work in a story-telling manner not unlike that of Charles Mingus’ “Scenes in the City” or “Los Mariachis (The Street Musicians),” minus the narration of the former, and with more stylistic diversity and intrigue than the latter.
While it doesn’t continue in such an overt manner, that transitory nature remains a constant throughout the soundtrack; themes return as callbacks, tracks fade into one another, and “found sounds” often share equal space with well-considered melodies and arrangements. This is evidenced by the album’s centerpiece, Luiz Bonfá’s “Manhã de Carnaval (Morning of the Carnival),” which pairs Bonfá’s nimble, expressive guitar work and Agostinho dos Santos’ vocals with a backdrop of faint birdsongs to create a rich ambience, despite its sparse arrangement. The song returns twice more: once as a brief instrumental conclusion to the record’s first side, and again as a response by Eurydice (sung by Elizete Cardoso) to dos Santo’s earlier vocal portrayal of Orfeu. “Manhã de Carnaval” would prove to be the film’s breakout song, an international success that quickly became a jazz standard in the United States.
Bonfá’s other contribution to Black Orpheus would be nearly the equal to “Manhã de Carnaval.” Appearing in the movie’s affecting closing scene, “Samba de Orfeu” is, perhaps, the one moment on the soundtrack whose full value is only accessible with knowledge of the film. Bringing one of the central plot points full circle, “Samba de Orfeu” reflects the warmth and radiant charm of the film’s best aspects, without being weighed down by its far more complicated legacy.
All in all, that legacy understandably extends to – and permeates throughout – the soundtrack. Just as the film served as a delivery vehicle for Brazilian culture to the wider world, its music brought the sound of bossa nova to receptive audiences around the globe. However, whereas the movie led to a pushback among Brazilian filmmakers – who would strive to create a more authentic depiction of their homeland in their own work – the soundtrack coincided with, and helped to inspire, a vibrant period of transition in Brazilian music. Just as Jobim and Bonfá had done with Black Orpheus, Brazilian artists would forge exciting new pathways by combining traditional folk stylings with modern musical ideas; and just as American and British audiences had been enthralled by the songs of Black Orpheus, so too would they be by the likes of Sérgio Mendes, João & Astrud Gilberto, and Jorge Ben. Those influences would help transition western culture from the black and white fifties to the kaleidoscopic sixties.