The fact that Helena Jobim is an award-winning poet will surprise no one who reads Antonio Carlos Jobim: An Illuminated Man. Jobim’s biography of her brother, the musician/composer who did as much as any artist to bring the bossa nova sound to the world, is suffused with a lyrical sense of detail. We learn about the types of trees that filled the backyard of Jobim’s childhood home; the furniture in the above-garage office where Jobim began the flirtations with the piano from which would flow many of his earliest compositions; the birds that sang outside the homes he shared with both of his wives. By book’s end, I felt intimately acquainted with every gust of wind and ocean wave in the entire country of Brazil. Imagine a music biopic like Ray directed by Terrence Malick, and you’ll have a idea of the general vibe of Helena Jobim’s writing.
Sensitively translated from the Portuguese by Dario Borim Jr., this hyper-specific emphasis on the minutiae of Brazilian flora, fauna and meteorology sometimes threatens to pull An Illuminated Man‘s focus from the musician himself, but Helena’s close connection to the subject of her biography ultimately results in an unusually insightful and, yes, illuminating portrait of a genius of pride, earthiness and deep connection to the heart from which his music flowed. The author hits all the points one looks for in a biography of a musical legend: the early days slugging it out in Rio de Janeiro nightclubs; the slow but steady rise of Jobim’s reputation as a composer of musical romantic fantasies; his crucial creative relationships with artists like poet/lyricist Vicinius de Moraes and Frank Sinatra, arguably the most celebrated American interpreter of Jobim’s music.