‘Enzo Avitabile Music Life’: The whole world

October 17, 2013


Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme has built a whole side business making films that most other filmmakers would be happy to have as a career: documentaries about music and musicians.

Boswell to Neil Young through three films, Demme has also made a film about Robyn Hitchcock – and now Italy’s cult figure of world music, Enzo Avitabile.

“Enzo Avitabile Music Life” is an engaging portrait of an artist that blends performance and verite footage. Impressionistic, at times a shade too formless, it won’t give you a full – or even partial – picture of Avitabile, his life and career.

But it should whet your appetite for his music. The music itself has both charm and substance, and Avitabile is performer and enthusiast for the various world-music luminaries he draws into his sphere for a song or two, including Naseer Shamma, Amal Murkus and Daby Toure.

A singer-songwriter whose songs deal with man’s capacity for both cruelty and peace, Avitabile is seen playing a variety of instruments: keyboards, saxophones, even a little instrument that looks like a cross between a violin and a harp that he invented himself. He’s seen in what appears to be an ancient, holy space (in fact, it’s the banquet room of a Naples restaurant), engaging with his various guests, moving easily from rehearsal to performance.

In between, he shows off his small apartment, talks about his inspirations and visits the Neapolitan neighborhood where he grew up. He takes the camera to the tiny basement of an apartment building, where he would spend hours practicing his sax as a boy. The room was so hot and fetid from its proximity to sewer pipes that his family used to make him shower and change clothes before he came upstairs.

If you’re looking for comprehensive information about Avitabile, this isn’t the film for you. Demme is glancing in many of his references; at one point, Avitabile mentions in passing that he went blind, then recovered his sight thanks to corneal transplants. The subject never comes up again.

Similarly, we see photos of Avitabile in America, with artists like James Brown. But we learn little about his actual career, his successes or his disappointments.

Which puts all the focus where Demme wants it: on the music. Blending rhythms and influences from Africa, the Middle East and Europe, Avitabile’s songs have beauty and strength, a pacifist tilt to the lyrics but not a political one.

Even then, you want to know more. He and singer Murkus offer a tune dedicated to Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian peace activist who worked to help Palestinians but was murdered by Muslim extremists. The film itself, however, never explains who Arrigoni was for the uninformed.

Still, I came away from “Enzo Avitabile Music Life” wanting to know more about him, eager to hear more of his songs. So the movie does its job. It offers a fascinating tour of world music in a single film, led by the engaging and talented Avitabile, whose eclectic taste is both tasty and trustworthy.

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