Elis and Tom is a new documentary, but it’s also the name of a landmark 1974 Bossa Nova album. You know about Bossa Nova, right? It’s that Samba beat out of Rio that makes the people dance in the background of foreign movies. But, outside of the Austin Powers theme, none of you have ever heard it. Maybe Erix, but he’s a South American musician. I probably should have asked him for help on this one.
Great collaborations in music history often have an intangible magic—a certain alchemy that occurs when two brilliant talents join together. The 1974 album Elis & Tom, featuring Brazilian icons Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim, overflowed with such ineffable chemistry. Now, the new documentary Elis and Tom from directors Roberto de Oliveira and Jom Tob Azulay compellingly captures the creative fire between these two legends that resulted in one of Brazil’s most cherished records.
A story told in two parts
Elis and Tom feels like a TV documentary too often, but then the vintage footage kicks. When we get that 16mm look, it feels a bit like that documentary about the making of Company. Then there are the jarring modern add-ons where it feels so typical. I get the historical impact of Elis and Tom, but help newbies to understand the album. Otherwise, how is it going to perform outside of Brazil?
The information that I needed came later on in Elis and Tom. However, most newbies would have jumped out of the documentary at this point. But you do get help throughout the documentary.
Intercut with these intimate rehearsal scenes are interviews looking back on the magical session, with legendary producer Creed Taylor and arranger Deodato reflecting fondly on the simplicity and purity of Regina and Jobim’s artistic kinship in the studio. Their remembrances make it clear this was no ordinary recording, but rather two musicians utterly in sync and at the peak of their abilities. Even as it illustrates the craft and work involved, Elis and Tom captures how Regina and Jobim made their intricate harmonizations feel like child’s play.
What Elis and Tom does as a music documentary
Music documentaries follow certain patterns. Historical deep dives, reconstructions, hidden truths about musicians and their work or looks at a killer moment in time are the usual templates. Elis and Tom lifts hit and miss from all of these templates. But, the end result left me a bit bewildered. Why? Well, because I felt like a small child running into an adult conversation.
But, what I noticed kept coming was a focus on the production of the Elis and Tom album. Even when it was in the forefront, it seemed pretty technical. Everything from the footage recorded during the production to the album’s construction was technical. I never saw this much focused on the craft in similar docs.
Technology and Art
When it comes to discussing how technology impacts art, feelings run hot. I talked with another viewer of Elis and Tom about how they felt about the issue and they were confused. I brought up that the nature of a documentary dedicated to an album’s recording is about technological processes in the arts. Most never think about that, but it’s true. Especially given how much of the talk is dedicated to the technical production of the album.
The documentary echoes the album’s stripped-back elegance, simply allowing Jobim and Regina’s talents to shine. There is no needless exposition or talking-head analysis; the music and personalities on display tell the story. Viewers see all they need to know about Regina and Jobim’s rapport through the almost spiritual looks they exchange as their voices meld seamlessly.
For fans of these icons, Elis and Tom provides a gift, inviting us into the studio during a high point of Brazilian culture. By the end, we come away feeling blessed to have witnessed this special meeting of musical minds that spawned such timeless beauty.
Elis and Tom is now in theaters. You have many options of what you see this weekend. Make it something that matters. Even if people just see it as a look-back at a classic album and not this big tech dive into making the classic sounds of Brazil. But, Elis and Tom showed me how I’m weird like that.