Life in Song, by Aaron Pinkston
Jonathan Demme’s cinematic legacy will undoubtedly be The Silence of the Lambs and (to a lesser extent) Philadelphia, but he has carved out a nice second career making music profile documentaries. His first was the landmark Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, but he has since made Storefront Hitchcock and three films with Neil Young. Enzo Avitabile Music Life is structured like the last of his Young films, Neil Young Journeys (which I do not recommend), combining the music performance film with an intimate, yet loose profile of its subject.
Unlike Demme’s previous films profiling very popular musical acts, Enzo Avitabile is an artist not regularly known by the mainstream. For that, it works fairly well as an introduction, though I’m sure Avitabile’s diehard fans will find just as much enjoyment. An accomplished saxophonist and World musician, Avitabile was born in Italy and has been a professional musician for over 30 years. His music employs traditional instrumentation with socially conscious messages. The portrait portions of the film give a good sense of him as a performer and music appreciator, but doesn’t go particularly in depth on his personal life or the journey he has made in his career. Instead, Avitabile communicates directly with the camera, talking about music and life in an intelligent, almost philosophical way.
Enzo Avitabile Music Life stays away from critic talking heads or other artists expounding on how important Avitabile has been in their own work, separating it from most run-of-the-mill music doc profiles. The film lets Avitabile take full stage, without the feeling of a formal interview — it is clearly structured and edited, but mostly laid back, with Avitabile rambling about music and naturally interacting with his family and friends. Overall, Avitabile is jovial and sweet. Despite the breadth and message of his music, he doesn’t seem to take life too seriously.
Instead of a full concert, Demme films a performance specific to the filming, where Avitabile calls on a number of musician friends from around the world. Though fully realized performances, at times the pieces feel like really high level jam sessions. The artists who drop in come from Iran, Cuba, Pakistan and other corners of the world, bringing with them varied musical sensibilities and modes of instrumentation, which Avitabile works in with ease. Avitabile and his friends give vibrant, passionate performances that work even without previous appreciation for World music. Demme doesn’t do much with the camera to get in the way of the performances, which is probably a good thing, letting the music work on its own. Most importantly, Demme outwardly shows his love for the music. The performance scenes almost have a vibe of Demme putting together a mix tape for a friend to discover.
The film’s profile ends with Avitabile returning to his roots in a small Italian town. There we meet a number of his longtime fans who have been in his life since the start of his career. It is capped by a standout performance, away from the film’s set up, with Avitabile fully going back to his musical roots. In the sequence, he plays his saxophone while walking through the Italian community. Though the film is light on backstory (even through this section), this is a really perfect way to profile the artist in a creative way. It’s not just a nice little music video, but a metaphor for the journey most music profiles would talk at us about.
I’m not going to rush out and buy all of Avitabile’s available music, but this documentary has given me an interest in a creative personality whose work I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. For anyone with broad musical tastes or a willingness to expand your tastes, the performances in Enzo Avitabile Music Life alone are worth seeing. Demme didn’t make a conventional music doc, but the approach he takes captures the artist and the man wholly, through his words and his music.