Review: ‘Enzo Avitabile Music Life’ sits in on extended jam session

Enzo Avitabile, right, in the documentary "Enzo Avitable Music Life."
(Andrea Emma / Shadow Distribution)

Over time, I’ve come to trust Jonathan Demme’s taste in music. There is something both idiosyncratic and astute about the soundtracks of his narrative features, whether a breakout hit from Bruce Springsteen in “Philadelphia,” which won an Oscar for original song, or the more subtle alt-rock shadings in “Rachel Getting Married.”

But Demme’s documentary work carries a special mystique. The director nearly disappears behind the musicians who are so often his subjects and in doing so catches these enigmatic creatures in their natural habitat. Whether private studio, concert hall or just hanging out, nothing feels forced, or fearful. You know going in that his is more of an appreciative rather than critical eye.

Demme’s latest, “Enzo Avitabile Music Life,” on the fusionist saxophone player and singer from Naples, Italy, certainly is born out of a connection the filmmaker felt almost immediately. He first heard Avitabile’s music on a radio program six years ago as he was crossing New York’s George Washington Bridge. Whether that was good fortune or fate, the filmmaker became a fan and we are better for it. The jazz-raised, rock-and-soul-inflected, world-music-influenced musician and composer is one of a kind. Nearly 60 and with a rich international career, he is relatively unknown in this country.


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The documentary grew out of happenstance. In 2010, when Demme was invited to the Naples Film Festival, he asked to meet Avitabile. Their conversations led to this week-in-the-life film that essentially records the musician in an extended jam session with a range of international artists. There are occasional glimpses of Avitabile’s life, including a trip to his birthplace, Marianella, a depressed area on Naples’ northern side, and the small basement room where he practiced hours each day as a child. But the film rarely strays from the main course.

Avitabile’s music is the score, but Demme’s passion sets the beat, infusing the film with a sense of discovery, as if the director is still in that first rush of falling in love with the sound. Demme’s earlier work has a more settled sensibility of a director working in his comfort zone, from 1984’s “Stop Making Sense” with the Talking Heads to his more recent Neil Young trilogy that was starting to seem like an obsession.

With “Enzo,” there is more distance and deference. Avitabile is an engaging character, articulate, energetic, a wiry mass of hair framing a smile touched by sadness. He seems always in motion — explaining efforts to catalog ancient rhythms, riffling through hundreds of his unpublished compositions, demonstrating his favorite computer program, talking to his grown daughters, adjusting the volume on the car radio. Until the sessions start. And then everything but the music fades away.

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Avitabile’s work is distinctive in the way it combines instruments, artists and styles. The eclectic group who sat in during this particular week included Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa, Sardinian woodwind player Luigi Lai, Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and Pakistani sitarist Ashraf Sharif Khan Poonchwala.

Avitabile’s lyrics are mostly haunting laments of modern conflicts, street children, land mines — joy and pain coexisting in a minor key. The cinematography, with Vincenzo Pascolo handling the bulk of it, is rhythmic and fluid moving between faces and instruments, as if keeping time.

In “Enzo Avitabile Music Life,” Demme has not given us an expansive film, and there are spots you wish he’d dug deeper. But there is such a well of emotion that the music alone is almost enough.


‘Enzo Avitabile Music Life’

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Pasadena 7, Pasadena