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Sing! But Hire a New Lyricist

'Enzo Avitabile Music Life' is a decent half-portrait

January 1, 2014, 12:00 am

Enzo Avitabile Music Life doesn’t feel like a finished film. It feels like 80 minutes of sort of compelling footage that’s missing the last 20 or so minutes that may make it vital.

For example, if you expect to know Avitabile, a prominent Italian jazz and world musician, better as a human being after watching Jonathan Demme’s portrait of him, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of talk—there is, and Avitabile does most of it—but it’s obtuse, the kind of thing that’s on par with a conversation with Yoko Ono. There are words coming out, but they don’t resolve into anything resembling a coherent thought.

That’s not to say Avitabile (or for that matter, Ono, who, by the way, is not in this documentary) doesn’t have important things to say; you’re just going to have to uncover the meaning beneath the layers and layers of opaque metaphor. It’s a shame that Demme didn’t use his rather keen observational powers to draw out his subject more. Viewers of Enzo Avitabile Music Life will be surprised that the same guy who made Cousin Bobby directs here; Music Life feels like a fanzine, the kind of thing that dwells on the object of fandom without attempting to explain it. You’re either in on the obsession or you’re not.

There’s a rather long section near the end of the film when Avitabile returns to his childhood home and neighborhood and reminisces about his teachers, and the room where he spent 10 hours a day studying music. There’s a funny tale of him playing saxophone for hours at a time in a room close to the sewer; when he went upstairs to his home he would immediately have to have a shower and change clothes or he couldn’t get in the house.

It’s charming—even if the sewer part of the story belies a feeling of childhood poverty—but that’s as deep as we get in Avitabile’s life. We meet his daughters and their husbands, but it’s about as exploratory as meeting people for two minutes at a party and then never seeing them again.

Good thing the movie is loaded with music performances, and on the whole, they’re stellar. Taking residence in a church, Avitabile leads various groupings of musicians through rehearsed and improvised sessions, and the music that results is nothing short of spectacular.

In particular, the Indian and Pakistani musicians really blend well with Avitabile’s vocal riffing (it’s amazing how much more pleasing Avitabile’s singing voice is in Italian than the very few times he sings in English), with Ashraf Sharif Khan Poonchwale’s sitar and Trilok Gurtu’s numerous pieces of percussion taking delightful center stage at the start of the picture.

A little more Amal Murkus and little less Zi’ Giannino Del Sorbo may have been in order, and there are precious few minutes of Daby Touré near the end. And for that matter, Avitabile doesn’t spend much time on the saxophone (though when he does, it’s easy to see why, in other parts of the world, he’s a superstar).

But back to Avitabile’s voice, which has the rare quality of being perfect no matter what the musical accompaniment. For those of you who don’t speak Italian, you’re better off not reading the subtitles when he sings, because if the translation is correct, Avitabile spends a lot of time singing maudlin and trite tales of suffering children, all of whom may be better served by a donation to your favorite charity than by lyrics that are as thoughtful as a fortune cookie.

The words also bring up the question of who is this guy? And why is he affected so much by suffering children? It doesn’t take a love of kids to feel badly for them or to wonder Avitabile’s connection is, but remember, the movie doesn’t answer those questions. It does, however, provide some superior ways to get your foot tapping.

Directed by Jonathan Demme
With Enzo Avitabile
The Screen
80 min.


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