The band that wouldn't quit
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Oct 14, 2011
If "American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance" and Olympics telecasts have taught us anything, it's this: Sometimes the backstory proves more dazzling than the main event. Although the musicians at the center of the documentary "Benda Bilili!" are skilled, their unlikely rise to success is nothing short of miraculous.
When French filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye stumbled upon the members of the Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili, they discovered star power and talent in a band of homeless and disabled street musicians. Long-ago bouts of polio have left the men traveling the streets of Kinshasa on custom-built tricycles with hand pedals. But when the band members get together, they seem unstoppable. Music is their salvation, though never an escape, as songs revolve around making do with little. They sing about sleeping on cardboard boxes and about how, one day, they'll upgrade to mattresses.
The poverty is heartbreaking in a region where small children either work or spend their days panhandling. But glimmers of hope quickly emerge. Take Roger, a small boy who stands out from the crowd. He refuses to beg for money, convinced that he can scrape together a living strumming his monochord, which consists of a single string stretched from an arched piece of wood to a tin can.
The filmmakers introduce him to Ricky, the guitar-picking ringleader of Staff Benda Bilili, which is the first of many times that the documentarians insert themselves into the story. There's something at once adorable and prematurely aged about the boy, and he proves a worthy addition to the group.
Over the course of five years, the film charts the band's painstaking rise to success, from its humble beginnings, when the Kinshasa Zoo served as a rehearsal space and recording studio, through a number of unexpected setbacks. All the while, the group's bluesy blend of traditional African music and R&B serves as the pleasing soundtrack.
The filmmakers' active presence within the film can feel jarring at times, if only because documentarians usually steer clear of intervening (or at least they purport to) in favor of chronicling.
That being said, the band's success is never diminished. The fickle music industry can seem so arbitrary: A talented singer with connections might not make the cut, while a middling performer in the right place at the right time rockets to fame. Staff Benda Bilili's unlikely triumph is an epic feat, with or without anyone's help.
Contains drug use. In Lingala and French with English subtitles.