Artwork by ANDREW SPEAR
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview first ran on VICE/NOISEY.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA The Brazilian actor/musician Seu Jorge is probably best known to American audiences for his performance as the Bowie-singing sailor Pele dos Santos — he of the pointy blood red toque, lip-dangling Gitane and vintage white Adidas Sambas — in Wes Anderson’s 2004 film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. But his breakout role was the homicidal avenger Knockout Ned in City Of God, Fernando Meirelles’ graphic 2002 study of the spiralling ultra-violence of internecine gangster warfare in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. After seeing City Of God, Anderson offered Jorge the then-unrealized role of Pele dos Santos, a crew member aboard long-in-the-tooth oceanographer Steve Zissou’s aging research vessel, The Belafonte, who performs and records acoustic versions of classic early ‘70s Bowie songs in Portuguese in his downtime. The idea for a sailor singing samba variations of glam-era Bowie at key junctures in the film was Anderson’s, but the execution fell to Jorge, a well-established singer-songwriter in the Tropicalia tradition of Jorge Ben Jor, Gilberto Gil, and Milton Nascimento, with eight albums under his belt. Although it went on to achieve beloved cult status in the twee annals of Andersonia, The Life Aquatic was a box office flop. However, The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions, the 2005 album that collects Jorge’s arresting Bowie esperanto, was a hit. But, busy with other acting projects, Jorge never mounted a proper tour in support of the album. Shaken by the loss of Bowie and his own father in space of a few days back in January, Jorge was moved to revisit the project and will pay tribute to the dearly departed art-rock icon with a 13-city U.S. tour that comes back to Union Transfer December 12th for a second, way-sold out Philly performance. Recently, we got Jorge on the horn to talk Bowie, Bill Murray, and The Life Aquatic 12 years after.
How did you come to be cast in The Life Aquatic? Did you have to audition?
Wes Anderson contacted me. No audition, we sent him a video of one of my version of Bowie’s song and he loved it.
Was Wes Anderson on your radar prior to your involvement in The Life Aquatic?
I didn’t know Wes before, so it was a great surprise to get in contact with this brilliant artist’s work and make part of It. He’s fantastic!
How did the Portuguese covers of Bowie songs come about? Were you doing them prior to your involvement in the film or was it envisioned as part of your role in the film?
It was envisioned as part of my role in the film. I heard the songs and got involved with the melody; the lyrics flew naturally according to what I was experiencing in life. I was fucked up and in need of money, with a newborn baby and just did it, there’s a lot of inspiration in adversities. Although most of the songs were composed during the shooting, and I wrote many of the lyrics inspired by The Life Aquatic story.
What are the challenges of translating a song out of the language it was written in and into another while maintaining the melody and rhyme scheme that are central to its charm?
The challenge is to keep the rhyme scheme and melody, changing the lyrics, using only my guitar and voice but keeping up with the whole energy and power vibe that Bowie created for his original songs, all epic pieces.
The day by day on this project was funny and full of amazing episodes, but what really will never get of my mind is the day we were filming in Cine Citá. I was dressed like Pele dos Santos, and we had to change the location from one set to other, and walking by the place we had to cross [Martin Scorsese’s] Gangs of New York movie set, It was very amazing to me the image of the Life Aquatic crew walking through the Gangs of New York set. Felt like in a surreal dream.
I’m wondering how Wes Anderson explained the role of Pele to you in advance of production or even during production.
I didn’t speak English at that time. Wes never told me who Pele was in words; we discovered the character together, while doing it. It was a very sensorial process.
I’m sure you have some funny Bill Murray stories, so please share.
There are many funny stories with Bill. He’s such a strong personality and one of the biggest and wildest hearts I ever met in life. At his 54th birthday party the DJ was doing a terrible job, I could see on Bill’s face that he was getting annoyed with him. Suddenly the DJ started to play “Girl from Ipanema” and Bill got really mad, he thought it was an old people song, not appropriate to his party. We were fresh, young and wanting to dance till the sunrise, the guy was really fucking up everybody’s mood, then Bill asked the DJ to change the song, immediately he started to play “Pink Panther,” I’m pretty sure Bill took that as a provocation — I did — that made him wildly mad, and ended the party yelling: “Are you fucking crazy? You are not going to play damn “Pink Panther Theme” at my party!! No Pink Panther in my party, get off, off offff!!!” It was so funny! Bill got balls! The guy was clearly provoking Bill, being a bully, and you don’t do that to Bill Murray!
Assuming you are a fan of Wes Anderson’s films, I’m wondering how you would rank his films and why and at where you would put The Life Aquatic in that hierarchy?
I think Royal Tenenbaums is so far the most brilliant work he’s ever done. After that, if I had to put in a hierarchy order it would be: Life Aquatic, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr Fox, Darjeeling Limited and Rushmore.
Did you ever get any feedback from Bowie about your renditions of his songs and/or get to meet or speak with him about it?
No, never got in direct contact with him, unfortunately, because it would have been amazing to meet this legend in person. But he heard my versions and said: “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese, I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with,” which makes me feel I’m walking in clouds. Something that will make my kids proud of me forever.
What was your motivation for doing this tour of Bowie covers now?
My father passed away one day after Bowie’s death. I lost both in one shot. I realized how brief and fragile this life is. This soundtrack is a very successful work, people really loved it and always asked me to play it live, I never had the time, always busy with other projects going on, then this year all these sad episodes happened and I decided to take a break and throw Bowie a tribute. I think celebrating life, art, and the good things are always the best way to keep going and honor the memory and legacy of the ones that have left us.
What else is on the horizon for you as far as music or acting?
I just finished a film called Soundtrack that should be out soon. In January next year I’m getting into a new feature film about Pixinguinha, the iconic Brazilian flute/sax player from the early 1900s. I’ll play the main role. I’m working on a new music album. You know, there’s a lot coming up! 2017 is going to be lit.