IT'S fitting that director Marcelo Machado's Tropicalia begins with a performance by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil on a Portuguese-language television show. The pair were the chief instigators of ''tropicalism'', a unique and short-lived artistic movement that exploded out of Brazil in the late 1960s. But even Veloso himself can only manage a wry smile when asked to define it for any ''English people watching'' by the show's besuited host.
Instead, that definition is left to the dozens of ''tropicalistas'' that populate Machado's film - from teenage rock group Os Mutantes to graphic designer Rogerio Duarte, pioneering filmmaker Glauber Rocha to musician Tom Ze, who uses impromptu shadow puppetry to convey the oppressiveness of the right-wing regime at the time.
Each has their own take on what made the movement so inspiring to artists within Brazil and beyond (Beck and David Byrne are some of its most well-known acolytes), yet there are still so many lingering questions when the film concludes with Gil's celebratory Back in Bahia. Machado, however, knows there are no easy answers when it comes to tropicalism, so his film is really about capturing the vibrancy and colour of that moment in time. Among the archival footage is a grainy clip of Gal Costa totally losing herself in a performance at the TV Record festival in 1968. Across the Atlantic, they'd call it punk.
Tropicalia screens tomorrow at Greater Union on Russell Street, city, and August 16 at Kino Cinemas as part of Melbourne International Film Festival. See miff.com.au