Complex and probing, “Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business” provides a fascinating account of the onetime megastar as not only a torn and tragic person and underrated artist, but also as the eventual prisoner of a giddy image reflecting various intertwined political and cultural agendas. As enjoyable as it is thought-provoking, well-honed docu should fruitfully engage auds in specialized sites and on PBS, where it will air in the “P.O.V.” series this fall. Brazilian narrator-director Helena Solberg establishes a personal tone in recalling how her parents kept her away from Miranda’s 1955 funeral, which drew nearly a million mourners in Rio de Janeiro.
The memory leads into recurrent reflections about the ambivalent feelings many Brazilians and other Latin Americans, especially women, had and have for “the Tutti-Frutti Woman.”
Born in Portugal and reared in Brazil, Miranda was an overnight sensation after being discovered at the age of 20 while working for a milliner. Singing infectious sambas in fanciful, fruit-topped costumes inspired by the African-American dress of the Bahia region, she was already a national icon in 1939 when visiting impresario Lee Shubert caught her act and signed her to a Broadway contract.
After taking New York by storm in “The Streets of Paris,” she returned home only to be stung by criticism that she had become “Americanized.” Replying to the charges in a witty musical revue, she scored another success, but her lingering dismay evidently prepared her to depart again quickly, this time bound for Hollywood and a contract with Fox.
Pic’s most intriguing segments examine how wartime political concerns led Washington, via the Nelson Rockefeller-led office of Inter-American Affairs, to nudge Hollywood to make convivial Latin-themed films as a way of solidifying alliances. Miranda thus became “the Good Neighbor policy in person.” However, though her cartoonish persona was a huge smash in the U.S., it rankled many in South America.
Presented as savvy and self-reliant, as well as charismatic, Miranda sensed the limitations of the image increasingly imposed on her. Buying out her Fox contract at the end of the war, she attempted to expand her range by playing a dual role in “Copacabana,” co-starring Groucho Marx. Nevertheless, her subsequent life was a steady slide into woes that included substance abuse, severe depression and a bad marriage. She died of a heart attack at age 46.
Pic makes good use of film clips and interviews with many Miranda confidants, Brazilian cultural commentators and observers such as Rita Moreno, who speaks movingly of the effects of cultural stereotyping.
Occasional dramatizations, featuring two actors as Miranda and another as “Luella Hopper,” are smoothly integrated, and tech credits are fine throughout.