Enzo Avitabile Music Life Gli Amanti Della Musica

Enzo Avitabile Music Life
directed by Jonathan Demme
Shadow Distribution
Opens in NYC at Lincoln Plaza and Angelika on October 18; opens in L.A. at The Royal and other Laemmle theaters on October 25

"There are many musicians inside a musician.” So says the Neapolitan composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist Enzo Avitabile, who proceeds in this film to express, with both contagious joy and scholarly musicological insight, just how an open-hearted/-minded view can make for fascinating new music. Director Jonathan Demme is a longtime fan of Avitabile’s music, as is Avitabile of Demme’s films, and Demme’s approach to the phenomenon of the Italian star is both admiring and inquisitive, as if he too wants to better understand what makes the manifold Avitabile tick, and how his music came to be. We hang out with the warmly garrulous Avitabile as he digs into his musical passions, in his modest apartment as he chops out the funky beats and chordal comps that form the basis of much of his music; on a visit to his birth home in Marienella, Avitabile greets proud old mates, teachers and neighborhood grannies, honks a sax tune as he wanders the alleyways and pops in at his first music academy. (“I had two choices, either be a musician or fix sewer pipes – the saxophone is a pipe too, I got the best deal!”)

Adept in a bewilderingly wide range of musical idioms, from large orchestral works to chamber ensemble pieces, hard-pumping jazz band workouts as well as his more familiar folk-tinged pop songs, Avitabile is at his intriguing best when he assembles international casts of players to explore common and contrasting musical roots, significantly in order to make a universally felt new music out of it. Participants include Cuban guitarist-singer Eliades Ochoa, the astounding Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, Palestinian singer Amal Murkus, Armenia’s ney master Djivan Gasparyan, Mauritanian soul singer Daby Touré, Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and the great Persian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor. One particularly interesting highlight is Avitabile’s demonstration of how James Brown’s funky beats relate not only to very old African rhythms but how he himself feels physiologically and emotionally attuned to these rhythms and incorporates them into his own otherwise arguably very Italian music.

Burnished in Neapolitan golds, yellows and blues, this beautifully and simply shot film lovingly and somewhat grittily renders Avitabile’s native Naples, a cultural crossroads where his alliances with musicians from farflung, seemingly disparate places make a wonderful kind of sense. Quite often music docs will hammer away with all this “music is the universal language” triteness, and it can come off pretty corny, not to mention offer little evidence that that universality is even effectively true. While there’s a bit of this overbaked sentiment in this film, too, there isn’t much of it; Demme, who’s done docs on the Talking Heads, the Pretenders, New Order, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, can boast of a genuinely musical feel for music’s representation onscreen; he lets the music and the glowing warmth of Neapolitan light do the talking. Then there’s the lively, chatty raps of the disarmingly charming Avitabile himself, whose socially conscious and complexly personal lyrics tell it like this: “If you follow your heart, no one will help you / You’re just a slave to shame / That makes you a happy fool / with a thorn in your heart.”
–– John Payne

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