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Music Review
May 2003

All the Sounds of City of God

The soundtrack of City of God is a treat. It brings a concise
mini-history of the music of Rio de Janeiro and its evolution over
the years chronicled in the movie's plot. In the final section of the
album, the music turns a bit darker as the drug war comes to a climax.

Ernest Barteldes

Music from Cidade de Deus (City of God) original score by Antonio Pinto and Ed Cortes plus songs by various artists, BMG

The Brazilian film City of God (an in-your-face film on life and death in a slum of Rio de Janeiro) is one of those various recent examples of movies that grow out of word of mouth. Originally released in only a couple of screens in New York City about four months ago (one being in Queens), its audience seems to grow continuously.

At a recent screening in Manhattan, I was delightfully surprised to see it screened to what was almost a full house (only the front-row seats had not been filled)—something amazing as far as foreign-language films go—and especially in the case of a film that didn't score an Oscar nomination or a win at the Golden Globes.

As of this writing, City of God is still playing in three Manhattan theaters.

For music lovers, the soundtrack of City of God is a treat—not only does it serve as a great companion to the film, but also it brings a concise mini-history of the music of Rio de Janeiro and its evolution over the years chronicled in the movie's plot.

The score was written by Antonio Pinto and Ed Cortes, both experienced musicians with some background on movie soundtracks. Pinto wrote the score for Central Station and, alongside Cortes, co-wrote the music for Abril Despedaçado (April in Pieces, Behind the Sun, in the English version).

Their previous works had featured symphony orchestras—something that Pinto felt would be wrong for this film. "My previous experience", he wrote on the album's liner notes, "had led me to write more epic themes to be performed by orchestras... none of this would work in City of God. The first decision I made was not to use this kind of resource, and that opened a whole universe to me. So we resolved to base the score on songs that had been popular in Brazil in the 60s and 70s... and thus was the concept created".

The album opens with a dialogue from the film in which Lil' Dice, a relentless murderer, takes over a drug dealer's turf, announcing that his new name is Lil' Zé—a character that would become the focus of the narrative told by Rocket, a kid from the slums who escapes a life of crime and eventually becomes a photographer.

What follows is "Meu Nome é Zé" (My Name is Zé) a samba-inspired funk that echoes the music that James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire and others, which served as inspiration to Brazilian stars of the seventies such as Tim Maia, Jorge Benjor and Luiz Melodia. The song morphs into "Vida de Otário"(A Fool's Life), which basically follows the same tendency, but with a larger presence of percussive elements of samba music, which serves as an indication of time passing by in the film, and as a maker for the evolution of the fusion of the American and Carioca music that took place at that time.

The original songs are intertwined with tracks of the years covered in the plot. I specially enjoyed listening to Cartola's classic renditions of the self-penned "Preciso Me Encontrar" ("I Need To Find Myself", remade in the nineties by Marisa Monte in her début album, M ) and "Alvorada" ("Sunrise"). The latter sounds as an antithesis to theme of the film: "Sunrise in the morro (a romantic reference to the slums of Rio)/ how beautiful it is/ no one cries, there is no sadness/ no one feels let down."

Cartola, who passed away in the early eighties, was a product of the slums of Rio at a time when most composers wrote songs about the happiness found in their impoverished lives, where they had little but were at least apparently content with what they had. There were petty thieves, of course, but nothing like would happen later, as chronicled in the film.

Two songs that I cringed at were Raul Seixas' "Metamorfose Ambulante" (Walking Metamorphosis) and Hyldon's "Casinha de Sapê" ("Sape Grass House"). Not that the songs are bad. The problem is that both tunes have been overplayed (they were huge hits in the mid-70s) there and have become staples of every night club singer in the country. I guess I just grew tired of them. For the American listener they will sound as mere curiosities. Maybe the album's producers should have picked hits that hadn't been around as much.

In the final section of the album, the music turns a bit darker as the drug war comes to a climax. There is a lot of dramatically played percussion and stark electronic sounds. Too bad that one of the tracks gives away the film's ending (no, I won't tell you the title) , but then again most people only pick up the soundtrack after they have seen the film—which unfortunately was not my case.

A final note of appreciation goes to the song that plays during the final credits, "Invitation to Life", which is sung by Seu Jorge, who also co-wrote the song and plays an important role in the film and features vocalists from Mangueira, one of Rio's main samba schools. The lyrics are poignant and leave little for comment: "This is the city of God/ but God has forgotten to look after/ the people who are never tired from the beatings they get..."

The soundtrack is extremely entertaining, and will interest anyone who is into knowing a little more about the music of that rhythmically rich country.

Ernest Barteldes is an ESL and Portuguese teacher. In addition to that, he is a freelance writer who has regularly been contributing The Greenwich Village Gazette since September 1999. His work has also been published by Brazzil, The Staten Island Advance, The Staten Island Register, The SI Muse, The Villager, GLSSite and other publications. He lives in Staten Island, NY. He can be reached at ebarteldes@yahoo.com



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