Title: Enzo Avitabile Music Life
Director: Jonathan Demme
After the mega-success of “The Silence of the Lambs,” it would have been very easy for Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme to become beholden to Hollywood, and the increasingly narcoleptic rhythms of an ever-diminishing slate of genre fare for which he would have been richly compensated. Instead, Demme chose the road less traveled, mixing studio fare (“Philadelphia,” a remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”) and the occasional indie (“Rachel Getting Married”) with nonfiction works that indulged some of his other intellectual interests — including a trio of documentaries on Neil Young. With his latest film, “Enzo Avitabile Music Life,” Demme again mines his love of music, offering up a look at the renowned Neopolitan saxophonist and singer-songwriter of the title, recognized amongst musicians for both his passion and endless experimentation.
A premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, “Enzo Avitabile Music Life” is the product of several years’ worth of work, as well as what is professed as the reciprocal esteem between filmmaker and subject. And that latter fact is perhaps what lies at the heart of this well-meaning movie’s problems. The parts of the film that work best, and connect regardless of one’s familiarity with Avitabile or any of his music, simply throw a light on his talent and open-hearted personality and get out of the way. When Avitabile is working with world music artists like Daby Touré and Naseer Shamma or Palestinian singer Amal Murkus and Buena Vista Social Club’s Eliades Ochoa, these free-flowing jams, organized especially for “Music Life,” speak volumes about the shared emotions and values of disparate cultures.
Avitabile describing himself as “many musicians within one musician” lend credence to a view of him as a unique artist of the dispossessed, as do so of the aforementioned collaborations with artists from Cuba and Iraq. In fleeting fashion, Demme also highlights his subject’s expansive knowledge and collector’s heart, as when Avitabile opens up a drawer full of nothing but North African reed flutes of various shapes and sizes.
“Music Life,” however, feels like a pencil sketch, and little more. For all the obvious optimism and positive energy that flow from him, Avitabile still remains an elusive figure. Demme refuses to lean into his subject in a more inquisitive manner, and the result elicits a frustration that runs in parallel fashion to the wonderment the musical performances themselves summon forth. Forty minutes of interesting material do not a successful movie make. Just give one of Avitabile’s albums a spin.
NOTE: For more information on the movie, visit www.ShadowDistribution.com/Enzo-Avitabile-Music-Life/.
Written by: Brent Simon