Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme has had a career that vacillates mainly between dark dramas (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Rachel Getting Married”) and music documentaries. He has trained his lens on Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, Kenny Chesney and the Talking Heads, and now he’s back at it with “Enzo Avitabile Music Life.”
The stream-of-consciousness title gives some sense of the meandering and abstract quality of the film, although the approach feels worthy of its subject, a philosophical Italian musician.
Avitabile may need no introduction in some circles, but a bit of background would have helped here. Instead, the movie jumps right into his recording studio, where the good-natured Avitabile, with a puffy cloud of dark, frizzy hair and a cross dangling from his ear, says he likes to “study.”
The audience gets some sense of this perpetual student as he riffs and performs with instrumentalists from India, Pakistan, Iraq and Cuba. He usually sings or plays a small stringed instrument, although his early training was in saxophone. In some ways, most of the film resembles an intimate concert documentary.
But details about Avitabile’s life remain frustratingly obscure. The film shows a few minutes with his daughters, who gush briefly and politely about their dad, but that adds little to the man’s portrait; there is a photo of the musician’s late wife, although no indication of when she died or the impact it had on Avitabile is provided; and there are pictures of the musician with Tina Turner, James Brown and Maceo Parker. Did he perform with all of these people? It’s unclear.
Avitabile is so devoted to his work, perhaps it makes sense to concentrate mainly on the music, and he comes off as a mad genius, with drawers full of instruments and dreams of cataloguing foot rhythms from around the globe. He has an interest in rare scales and rarer instruments, and one of the most informative moments comes when a musician describes what he’s playing — an eye-popping three-piped instrument called a launeddas.
The movie sometimes feels haphazard. During one performance, the camera pans away from the musicians and instead focuses on photos of death and chaos. It’s a curious choice, although it works more effectively later in the film when Avitabile and a Palestinian songstress sing about a man who was killed while we see footage of the man before his death, dancing and hanging out with friends. Multiple cameras often circle around a subject, meaning one occasionally lands in the shot. It can be distracting, although it seems a necessary evil to optimally capture the performers. But when a boom microphone pops in and out of one shot of Avitabile singing, you have to wonder if it was just careless.
“Enzo Avitabile Music Life” succeeds at conveying one-quarter of its title. It is full of beautiful sounds that should delight fans of Avitabile and world music in general. The life portion is a bit trickier, but you get the sense that Avitabile wanted it that way. He is, after all, a master of orchestration.
Unrated. At the Avalon. Contains nothing objectionable. In Italian with subtitles. 79 minutes.