Do Look Back:  Retrospection on the Impacts of Black Orpheus

Orfeu Negro / Black Orpheus has touched hearts, minds, eyes and ears around the globe.  My own relationship with the film and the music includes experiences as a spectator, amateur musician, record aficionado, student, traveler, researcher, teacher-scholar, and citizen of the world. The movie and soundtrack have been forceful vehicles in the formation of notions about Brazil in the international imaginary, having made immediate and notable impacts in the early sixties and having continued to exert influence and arouse interest since then. In his memoir Tropical Truth, Caetano Veloso recounts how all sorts of folks in London in 1969 (“record-company executives, hippies, and intellectuals, everyone we met”) spoke enthusiastically about Black Orpheus.  He notes that still “today [1996] there are endless repetitions of narratives of discovery of Brazil by foreigners” via “the unforgettable film.” This is as true in North America as it is in Europe, as right in the “real world” as in college environs. Indeed, a number of senior Brazilianists have revealed that they were first drawn to the field by the film and/or its music. In the USA, Black Orpheus is now regarded as an “art-house classic,” and the principal songs are Brazilian standards. As for their persistent utilization, in my forty years of university life I have seen Black Orpheus in many different courses and realms: film series, jazz workshops, Third World/Latin American Studies, anthropology, Portuguese, Brazilian civilization or Afro-Brazilian culture classes, Black/Afro-American Studies, cinema concentrations, popular music & globalization venues, and others, for all the varied reasons one might imagine. To illustrate the main point of the present notes— the continued relevance of Black Orpheus — witness coincidences and circumstances surrounding this contribution. I received an e-mail request in Rio de Janeiro precisely on the eve of a screening and discussion for a study-abroad program. Later in the term, guest speakers would talk about samba, urban space, favelas and expressive culture, with inevitable reference to a historic 1959 film that broadcast related sounds and images worldwide. On another day, we visited the special vintage bin at the nearby mega-store for entertainment media; the second item we saw was a laser-disc of the film, and when we asked about the Black Orpheus LP we were told that people ask for it constantly. Soon after I visited an advanced university study group on literature and music, and fully half of those present had research topics relevant to the film and its music via Vinícius de Moraes, Bossa Nova, or internationalization. There are so many further connections across North America, but it should already be plenty clear that Black Orpheus and repertory are not just strong remembrances; they are still alive and active. The release of the Brazilian film Orfeu (1999) naturally rekindled commentary on the French film and all it had represented, and in the last ten years the beat has gone on; a search session on the Internet soon yields an abundance of new data and critique, a veritable cornucopia.

When considering the impact of Black Orpheus in the land of Hollywood, it is worthwhile to recall a USAmerican link in the genesis of the musical drama that would inspire the film.  The playwright Vinícius de Morais served as guide to Waldo Frank in Rio de Janeiro when he was conducting research for his book South American Journey (1943). The pair went to shantytowns, places of ritual worship, and samba schools. During these visits they sensed a general association between ancient Greek and black Brazilian ways of being. Soon after reading the libretto of the first opera version of the Orpheus myth, Vinícius heard a batucada and began to compose his own locally set musical play. He finished the first draft while on assignment in Los Angeles in 1946. The story of North American repercussions picks up with the US release, box-office success, and the foreign-film Oscar in 1960.  The history of Camus' film—playing off myth, drama, and carnaval—invites reflection on uses of archetypal and real-life sources, on relations between Brazil and France, on questions of idealized or exotic perspective, and on mass-mediated images of tropical settings, all of which also relate to reception in the USA.

Black Orpheus took on a de facto ambassadorial function outside of Brazil, likely having introduced (a certain) Brazilian culture to more people in the northern hemisphere than any other art work.  It affected young and old alike and prompted musings on black-white relations, including by one Barack Obama, whose memoir contains a significant reaction to a viewing with his sister and mother. Camus’ mythical rationale (application of the Orpheus story itself) has never convinced reviewers and critics in USA, but the work’s literal colorfulness and sonic energy have indeed impressed. The original splash and enduring appeal of Black Orpheus are largely due to its presentations of Rio’s incomparable landscapes and popular culture, especially music, truly its centerpiece (“the real and only star” writes one blogger). The soundtrack became a historical landmark, a pivotal moment and key point of reference in the evolution of contemporary Brazilian popular music and its insertion into global circuits. The quality and power of the auditory dimension of Black Orpheus have been remarked across the planet, often with exaggerations or misconceptions (above all the extent of Bossa Nova), but the fundamental fact of heavy impact remains steady. 

The film includes both sound over and performances where musicians are seen and heard in action. During the 107 minutes, the most pervasive type is batucada, percussion sessions with typical Brazilian instruments. There are some instrumental versions, with brass or strings, and there are five composed songs, usually with individual voice. The lead tune “A felicidade” is the only true Bossa Nova, with restrained vocal and characteristic execution of altered guitar chords. “Frevo,” a somewhat out-of-place march (the title genre belongs to the city of Recife), has a text but it was not used by Camus.  The lively “O nosso amor” is a faux samba-de-enredo (story samba) because it has no real plot as the samba-school genre normally does. “Manhã de carnaval” is a recurring sentimental theme with airs of the bolero/ballad-like samba-canção and traditional modinha. From the final-scene, the harmony and idiosyncratic plucking of strings in “Samba de Orfeu” place the piece in the domain of incipient Bossa Nova as well (words also not used, vocables only).  One germane curiosity:  the boy-actor who played pandeiro throughout the film and guitar in the final scene (as the heir of Orpheus) went on to reside in the USA, and he still teaches percussion in California. A special segment in the film features authentic voices and conga-type drums of umbanda, syncretic Afro-Brazilian spirit-possession rite. The most musical segment may be the opening sequence in the favela, which frames “A felicidade” with batucada. An essential point here is one of disjunction:  Bossa Nova is middle-class music; it emerged not in the poor nearly exclusively African-Brazilian favela but rather in the largely European-Brazilian beachfront district of Rio’s south zone (Copacabana, Ipanema), which has no part in the film. This said, nothing can detract from the true magnificence of the song and the beauty of its performance, pure gold for music appreciation anywhere and everywhere. Que beleza!

 These landmark compositions gained composers Jobim and Bonfá international fame, the former going on to become one of the absolute giants of Bossa Nova. In North America alone more than 700 recordings have been made of the latter’s “Manhã de carnaval” (“Black Orpheus” in fake books and The Real Book that jazz musicians carry in their bags). The song has been so momentous that it has its own Wikipedia entry.  There have also been many covers of “Samba de Orfeu.”  The set list from Black Orpheus has figured in an infinite number of jazz gigs and recording sessions since 1960; those of saxman Stan Getz are frequently noted. When Bossa Nova exploded in the USA in 1962-63, hundreds of Brazil-theme albums were made, often looking back to the tracks from the film.  Of the many versions over the years, a few LPs stand out: Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (1962) by Vince Guaraldi, the live medley by guitarist Bola Sete added to a later release of the soundtrack, Bonfá’s own Black Orpheus Impressions (1968), and the revival Black Orpheus (1994) by Trio da Paz, a superb Brazilian trio in New York.

I was privileged to be with the US-based French-Brazilian musicologist Gerard Béhague, and two pioneers of Brazilian music in the USA who had made Good Will tours in South America— flautist Herbie Mann and guitarist Charlie Byrd (for one of his final performances)— at a 1999 Bossa Nova symposium at the Smithsonian Institute in the nation’s capital.  They have all passed on now, but their contributions to Brazilian music and its understanding stateside remain.  On that DC occasion, both musicians happily reminisced about the early sixties when they absorbed Brazilian musical influences and began to perform select tunes. Front and center in their memories were the film and the soundtrack of Black Orpheus.

Charles A. Perrone

Professor of Portuguese and Luso-Brazilian Literature and Culture at the University of Florida. His books include Letras e Letras da MPB (1988, 2008) and Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song:  MPB 1965-1985 (1989).

Further reading:

"Myth, Melopeia, and Mimesis: Black Orpheus, Orfeu, and Internationalization in Brazilian Popular Music," in C. A. Perrone and C. J. Dunn, co-eds., Brazilian Popular Music and Globalization.  Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

"Don’t Look Back:  Myths, Conceptions, and Receptions of Black Orpheus." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 17 (1998).

Robert Stam, Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997).