Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
At the heart of VIVO lies a sweet, poignant tale about friendship, music, legacy and love. Director Kirk DeMicco’s animated feature, which debuts on Netflix on August 6, follows a very special kinkajou named Vivo (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda) who entertains and enthralls crowds in a town square in Havana, Cuba with his beloved owner Andres (voiced by Juan de Marcos). But when tragedy strikes, Vivo feels compelled to travel to America to deliver a special message Andres couldn’t: a final love song to unrequited love Marta Sandoval (voiced by Gloria Estefan), who’s performing a farewell concert in Miami. He’ll need the help of Gabi (voiced by Ynairly Simo), Andres’ boisterous, energetic tween niece who’s ingeniously quirky, but dealing with some heartache of her own.
At the animated feature’s recent long lead press day, we learned a few key details about its creation and completion.
VIVO’s genesis began in 2009. Miranda says, “Vivo came into my life a really long time ago, and I just sort of fell in love. We wrote all of these songs back in 2009. But I always loved the story. It was sitting in my trunk of songs and so, we revisited the project recently with Quiara [Alegría Hudes], who wrote IN THE HEIGHTS with me. And we totally rediscovered Vivo’s story. He’s one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever written for.” He later adds, “It’s about music being able to bridge distances – how music and love are really sort of the same thing.”
Gloria Estefan and Juan de Marcos were instantly pulled in by the setting and music. Estefan says, “Vivo is a love letter to “mi tierra,” Cuba. I loved the script when I read it. I thought it was really heartfelt. When I heard the songs, I fell in love. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote all this amazing music. And Alex Lacamoire, I got to work with him in the studio and I was thrilled.” de Marcos adds, “Vivo captures the spirit of Havana, the spirit of my nation with characters that really represent Cuba. I love what they have done with the music. For me, it was a privilege to work on a film like this.”
Vivo is a cute, charismatic hero and star performer. Quiara elucidates, “He has a lot of panache. He’s graceful. He’s a controlled performer. He’s positive. He’s dazzling. He’s got swagger and he’s suave. You know, he really inherits this incredible tradition from Andrés, this incredible musical tradition – and he forwards it.”
Humans can’t hear Vivo talk. He makes little kinkajou noises and squeaks, but when he speaks English, humans can’t understand him. Yet music is the great unifier. Quiara says this communication style was a lot of trial and error. “There’s the scene where, Gabi discovers that Vivo is a stowaway in her bedroom in Key West and how to communicate that his mission was the song. Early drafts I wrote of that scene were really based on nodding and shaking heads. Then, Kirk took that baton and wrote newer drafts of it where Gabi was kind of able to intuitively fill in the dots a little bit more. But a lot of that was drafting and trial and error and trying to make that feel easy as opposed to cumbersome.” DeMicco says, “It’s like a storybook; it works on a part of your brain more like when you were a kid. When a character like Vivo, who in most of the third act except for singing doesn’t say a lot, you actually project your best self onto that character. It’s sorta like babies and puppies – they don’t have to say much, but you love them even more. It actually was sort of nice to have that sort of rule in there, allowing us to have some discipline.” He continues, “A lot of times it, like, the characters can only, you know, the-why we’re making ’em talk is to really find out what’s underneath their hood. We have the songs to do that. We had Lin’s words to do that. We had his music, and Alex’s music, to do that.”
Director Kirk DeMicco wanted to make sure VIVO had a well-written heroine. He says, “Sitting down with Quiara, the first thing [we] spoke about was how can we deepen the emotional core of the film, and how can we find a really great female aspirational character.” She explains, “As opposed to Vivo and Andrés, who really represent the pinnacle of a tradition, even though they live a very humble life, they’re virtuosos. Gabi is a very different creative soul. In fact, she was inspired by my sister, who is 13 years younger than me. I wanted Gabi to have this celebratory nonconformity – a somewhat joyous anarchist or joyous rebel. Not rebelling and being nonconformist as a negative, to be anti-something but to kind of be pro-herself.”
Gabi’s song “My Own Drum” is a total banger. “It feels like the whole movie transforms when we get to [that song],” she says. “The whole style, you haven’t heard noise like that. You haven’t heard drums like that up to that point – in a way that almost like Dorothy getting to Oz. t’s like the basic vocabulary of the music changes. So, we became interested in this push and pull between classic and new.” The catchy bop was birthed by Miranda during a recording session for a different song. She explains, “It was on a break where he was going, ‘own drum, ho-hum.’ I would write that out in a monologue. And then, he oftentimes doesn’t use a lot of language but takes that vibe, and continues with that vibe.” She continues, “In this case, I think he has something about a seat on the bus. I get my own seat on the bus. I’ve always been a ‘me’, not an ‘us’. Like, that was a little bit of a line, not rhyming obviously, from the monologue. So, little snippets of the monologue to do and dump in the songs here and there – that’s a bit about how we wrote together.”
There are a multitude of song styles represented in VIVO. It’s a multi-cultural sonic blend that transforms this musical adventure. Composer Lacamoire says he loved being able to explore all those avenues. “What I love about Lin-Manuel as a composer is how eclectic he is and how many different styles he’s able to write in, in a fluent and fluid way. Vivo has elements of so much music. There’s reggaeton. There is some salsa. And I was able to compose some music that has some elements of charanga, that has some elements of warasa, that has some rumba.” This mix helped with creating Marta’s theme. “It was really a tribute to my father who is a big fan of Ernesto Lecuona who is probably the best well-known Cuban composer of piano literature. And he has a beautiful song called ‘Siempre en Mi Corazón/ Always in My Heart’. I wanted to write a song that kind of evoked that feeling, which, to me, just has elements of old Cuba to me. I love that I can take those chords and use those throughout the film. That, to me, was a big bedrock of a lot of the compositions.” He finishes, “Anytime that I get to honor Cuban rhythms, Cuban music, Cuban styles for me it’s a win. It’s an ability to story-tell through music, a way to honor my heritage, a way to honor this country, a way to honor the story.”
Oscar-winner Roger Deakins serves as the consulting cinematographer on VIVO. Production designer Carlos Zaragoza was excited to collaborate with the masterful talent.“From the very beginning it was great to know that he was very excited about joining us to do something he’s never done. This is a first for many, including Roger Deakins, believe it or not. He was always dealing with photo-real [before]. What I like of this is the complexity. It’s kaleidoscopic; story-wise, music-wise. We wanted to bring that quality to the look of the lighting in the movie. He was on very much from the beginning. We learned a lot from him – his expertise.” He continues, “If everything in the real-world sequences is feeling that special, it feels lyrical. At the same time, it’s believable. We are dealing with characters and settings that are very pushed, very caricature in our movie. The challenge was to-how to make them believable for any audience and, at the same time, support the musical theme of the movie. That was thanks to Roger.” Art director Wendell Dalit concurs. “To have someone as seasoned as Roger Deakins come in and consult, it was just really a pleasure being kind of a fly on the wall in the room and absorbing some of his knowledge. It was really helpful to have him on the team.”
VIVO debuts on Netflix starting on August 6.