World music. Jazz fusion. Spoken word. If any of these phrases drive you to preemptively plug your ears, you’ll likely go batty sitting through Enzo Avitabile Music Life, the latest music documentary from enthusiast Jonathan Demme.
Enzo Avitabile is a Neapolitan multi-instrumentalist who is little known in the U.S. Years ago, however, Demme caught some of Avitabile’s work on the radio and swooned, unexpectedly turning it into one of his next projects. Reflecting the artist’s fondness for improvisation, the film may be considered hagiographic but is far from a straight biopic. If you aren’t familiar with Avitabile when the 79-minute doc begins, you won’t be much more enlightened once it ends.
Demme leans heavily on performances, with Avitabile often jamming with musicians who span the globe. He also embraces American music, though, showing off photos of himself with superstars such as Tina Turner, Maceo Parker, and James Brown, mentioning that Brown was one of his first inspirations. Avitabile thumps a rhythm on drum head to demonstrate the link between Brown’s funk and Avitabile’s repertoire, but viewers who are not musically inclined may not be able to discern the parallel to Avitabile’s seemingly unformed and unending songs, which one fan describes as avant-garde.
In between the music, Demme simply lets Avitabile babble, randomly bringing up facts such as his earlier blindness, the death of his wife, and his conversions from Catholicism to Buddhism to “his own form” of Christianity. The nearly 60-year-old musician is affable, with untamed wiry hair and an ever-present smile, even when he’s singing about human strife. The most charming scenes follow Avitabile to his hometown, where elderly but lively neighbors shout joyous greetings from their balconies and tell stories of his childhood.
Pleasantness isn’t enough to make a music documentary successful, though. You may enjoy the performances, but nothing here offers anything but the most cursory portrait of who this man is. Demme may be enthralled by Avitabile, but the director’s jazz is a little too free.