The premature death in 1982 of one of Brazil’s most treasured musicians left her homeland reeling. “Brazil without Elis,” mourned one front page after the legendary singer Elis Regina unexpectedly died at the age of 36.
So when Elis Regina recently re-emerged, performing a soul-stirring duet with her daughter, the Grammy-winning singer Maria Rita, there were similarly charged scenes of catharsis and nostalgia.
“It’s seven-something in the morning … and I’m bawling my eyes out,” tweeted Brazil’s first lady, Rosângela Lula da Silva, one of millions of Brazilians moved to tears by the performance.
The AI-created collaboration – which took more than 2,400 hours to produce and was made for a commercial celebrating Volkswagen’s 70th birthday in Brazil – has also sparked an impassioned debate over the ethics of artificial intelligence and its impact on the music industry and society as a whole.
Newspapers and social media have been filled with discomfort and in some cases outrage at an onscreen revival that Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, who died more than four decades ago, could not herself have approved. Some critics remembered how the singer, commonly known as Elis, had been a staunch opponent of Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship – a regime Volkswagen notoriously collaborated with.
This week, Brazil’s advertising watchdog, Conar, announced it would investigate a possible breach of ethics after receiving complaints questioning whether it was right to use such methods “to bring a deceased person back to life” on screen.
“Questions have been raised over whether [the use of such techniques] might cause some to confuse fiction with reality, above all children and teenagers,” Conar said, promising a ruling in about 45 days.
Volkswagen has defended its viral campaign, in which the face of a female double playing Elis was altered with facial recognition software to give the impression that the singer was performing. “The idea … was to use artificial intelligence to create a unique moment that reunited … one of the greatest singers in the history of Brazilian music, and her daughter Maria Rita, a contemporary icon,” the company said, adding that the production had the blessing of the singer’s family.
Speaking to the Guardian, Elis’s eldest son, the music producer João Marcello Bôscoli, hailed the discussion his mother’s reappearance had triggered and how the advert had revealed “a more emotional, playful and artistic” side to a technology more often associated with fake news and memes.
“Elis has provoked a debate about the future … despite having physically died more than 40 years ago … I can’t think of another person in Brazil apart from Elis who could have generated this,” he said.
Bôscoli, who was 11 when his mother died, described his emotional reaction to watching her deepfake renaissance a few days before the commercial aired. “For a second … I allowed myself to embark on this fantasy of my mother singing with a daughter who lost her mother when she was four. It’s something that’s really moving – even when it’s in an advertising campaign,” he said.
“Why did this … campaign move people?” Bôscoli added. “Because it put them face-to-face with Elis. And almost anyone who listens to Elis Regina finds themselves moved – even when it’s through an AI mask … This is the power of great music: emotions, feelings and ideas.”
The Elis Regina/Maria Rita rendition of one of the former’s most celebrated recordings – the dictatorship-era anthem Como Nossos Pais – is not the first time a Brazilian artist has performed alongside a late relative. Daniel Gonzaga, the son of the singer Gonzaguinha, who died in 1991 aged 45, once performed a tearjerking version of one of his father’s hits in which the pair sang together with the help of genuine archive footage of the dead artist.
Bôscoli attributed the controversy over his mother’s appearance to trepidation over the kind of technology used, which he predicted would soon become an almost invisible presence in our lives, like our supply of water, gas or electricity.
“If they’d used an Elis lookalike nobody would have said anything. If it had been a cartoon of Elis nobody would have said anything … If it had been a woman who looked completely like Elis, nobody would say anything.”
He preferred to leave “deeper analyses about the impact AI is going to have on the human species” to the experts. But by introducing “the greatest singer of all time” to a new generation of Brazilian fans, Bôscoli saw the advert as a triumph. In the 10 days since it first aired, the YouTube version has been watched more than 16m times. Elis Regina’s songs have been streamed more than 20m times.
Bôscoli hoped foreign music lovers who had yet to discover his mother’s inimitable voice would follow their footsteps.
“Elis Regina is … one of the last unknown treasure troves of the 20th century that the world could discover … and she’s just one click away,” he said of his mother, who would be 78 today.
“Listen to her, because you will like it and it will move you.”