Since the 1984 Talking Heads collaboration Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme has enjoyed a sideline in music documentaries, videos, and concert films, one that’s always felt like a natural outgrowth of the central place music has played in his narrative features. Demme’s films with Robyn Hitchcock and Neil Young convey a rare sense of intimacy, and that approach carries over to Enzo Avitabile Music Life, a film about Italian musician Enzo Avitabile. Born on the poor outskirts of Naples, Avitabile first attracted attention as a saxophonist in the 1980s, collaborating with James Brown, Tina Turner, Afrika Bambaataa, and others. Since then, he’s branched out, collaborating with musicians from across the globe and becoming well-known in Italy for what one admirer (whom Avitabile encounters during the film, seemingly at random) calls his “avant-garde music.”
In truth, there’s nothing all that avant-garde—or at least nothing particularly forbidding—about the music featured here, of the sort that usually gets lumped into the “world” section, for want of a better term. Demme mostly steps back and lets Avitabile do the talking, and when he talks about the connections he’s found across different traditions, and how he’s used those connections to blend disparate strands of traditional music, it partly explains why he’s become a magnet for likeminded musicians. He’s unfailingly passionate about his work and its ability to raise awareness about 21st-century political inequities—no doubt another element that attracted Demme—and that explains the rest. Global rhythms, global scales, global issues.
Nonetheless, Demme doesn’t set the barrier for entry particularly low for those unfamiliar with his subject. Avitabile tells his own story, but he doesn’t tell it particularly clearly; he makes offhand references to losing his wife and his eyesight, but never develops the thought. Constantly chattering beneath a head of Bob Dylan curls, Avitabile is a charismatic figure, but during a stretch of the film dedicated to him revisiting his old Neapolitan neighborhood—a section dominated by a seemingly endless anecdote delivered by Avitabile’s now-geriatric childhood neighbor—Music Life starts to seem like a film made for pre-established fans, rather than one likely to win new admirers. It doesn’t help that the songs frequently feature blunt lyrics about “children of war” and other causes for concern, between equally graceless appeals for a future of “men living hand-in-hand.” It’s possible that something’s getting lost in translation, but Demme’s film only occasionally makes it seem like it’s worth the effort for the rest of the world to catch up.