In the Key of Joy

By Steven Libowitz   |   January 16, 2020

Sérgio Mendes just performed in Santa Barbara at Campbell Hall for UCSB A&L. Normally, we wouldn’t see someone of his stature – a three-time Grammy-winner whose nearly six-decades long career as a producer, composer, keyboardist and vocalist places him among the most internationally successful Brazilian artists in history – back in town just two scant months later. But this time, Mendes will be meandering down State Street on Saturday, January 18, for the world premiere of John Scheinfeld’s new documentary Sergio Mendes: In The Key of Joy, a decidedly upbeat biopic exploring the defining moments of Mendes’ life and music, whose hit single “Mas Que Nada” was the first Portuguese language song to score on Billboard’s U.S. Pop chart.

Scheinfeld is best known for two widely acclaimed previous feature docs about legendary musicians: The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, while his 2017 Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, currently runs on Netflix.

“My mom used to play Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 all the time when I was growing up, so I was always tapping toes and feeling energized by him for years,” Scheinfeld recalled. “His music is very joyous and uplifting and always makes you feel good. I hesitated all of five seconds before saying ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’”

Part of the appeal and the approach, Scheinfeld said, was that Mendes’ trajectory isn’t “a traditional one of a musician who came out of nowhere, had success, fell into the abyss of alcohol and drugs and then clawed his way back. Instead he’s just an extremely talented guy who followed his dream. He’s had ups and downs in his career, but has found a way to reinvent himself in every decade.”

Mendes and a few bandmates will be on hand to perform a mini three song set during the Q&A session with the star and director following Saturday’s screening. He talked about the movie and his career over the phone last week.

Q. The film feels very poignant to me. How was it for you to go back and relive these moments from your life and career? 

A. At first there was a little anxiety… to go back and examine your life when you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It’s very difficult when you embark on a project like this to talk about your life and go back to your past. You need to be in tune with the person you are working with. But John Scheinfeld, he’s such an amazing person, not just a good director, and he’s very musical and tasteful, so it was a wonderful encounter.

In the film, you talk about collaborating with a variety of artists through the decade, and how you manage to mesh with them. It almost seems like with John you found another musical partner, but for making a movie.

Yes. It does feel like that. We spent a wonderful two years together, and it was a pleasure after all to revisit places and talk about them. The first time I saw (the finished film) with my wife, we both had tears in our eyes. There are so many beautiful moments from our lives, and to listen to the music – it was very emotional to feel it all again in a movie form.

It’s very rare for an artist to stay relevant for decades. Why do you think you have been able to remain popular for so long?

It’s about making good choices, and I definitely have been very lucky to have worked with the people early on in my career. You do make choices, but intuition also plays a big role in my decisions. But I think my curiosity has been the most important. I love to learn and work with new people from different cultures. I’m always looking for something different in every aspect – art, music, and really all of life.

It seems like you float into new projects rather than force them, like it’s less a matter of reinventing but just allowing yourself to be permeated by what’s around you. Which explains how you have survived if not thrived through things like disco and new wave, and why you made such great music with someone like, who at first blush wouldn’t seem to be a compatible artist. Does that resonate?

Absolutely. You don’t want to be trendy, but I love to take left turns, to try things that involve – what’s the word in English? – audacity, just to see if they work for me. But not to follow a fashion. My curiosity lets me look into things like when wants me to make a record with him. All through my career, at Atlantic, A&M, Geffen – they just told me to give them the best record I could. I can only work well if I have the freedom to indulge my curiosity and go where it takes me.

Speaking of which, you are releasing an album next month to coincide with the documentary. What inspired you to compose… again so much?

I haven’t written in a long time, but I composed all the songs on the album. I’ve got the new rapper as well as Common and some other guests. It’s very fresh and new, exactly what I wanted to do, continue to portray the joy of Brazilian music that still feels that way to me 60 years later. The other day I was taking an Uber, and the driver started telling me he makes beats. So I told asked him to let me hear them, and he was great, so I gave him my card and told him to call me.


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