Film Review: Enzo Avitabile Music Life

Enzo Avitabile and his unique fusion music from Naples clicks in Jonathan Demme’s plain but memorable documentary salute.

Director Jonathan Demme’s enthusiasm for Neapolitan multi-musician and composer Enzo Avitabile is catching in this simple, straightforward documentary centered around a jam session that features extraordinary talents of contemporary world music playing rare and bizarre instruments. Though Avitabile, who has worked with James Brown and Tina Turner, has a popular following in Italy where the doc should be well appreciated, this salute to a unique artist and a jazz-fusion pathfinder will be a tantalizing introduction for non-Italian audiences.

Like an ideal cross between his Neil Young concert docs and his hymn to the indomitable spirit of New Orleans in I’m Caroline Parker, Demme’s graceful style effortlessly interweaves Avitabile and his native city, leaving the viewer with a sensory impression of Naples’ shabby slums and eccentric street denizens. It isn’t hard to see what attracted the director to the talented 57-year-old musician, a hyper-creative, mile-a-minute talker who sports a fuzzy haircut, a day’s stubble and a dangling crucifix earring. His grasp of musical instruments and genres is surprising, and the clincher is when he tumbles into the back seat of a car and hands the driver a CD, explaining he likes to begin the day with Maestro Pergolesi.

The jam session is held in a Baroque church lined with paintings and altars where, one by one, 12 high-caliber world musicians arrive to perform his music. Enzo sings in his singular voice and sometimes plays the saxophone with Eliades Ochoa, Naseer Shamma, Gerardo Núñez, Ashraf Sharif Khan Poonchwala, Trilok Gurtu, Luigi Lai, Zi Giannino Del Sorbo, Amal Murkus, Djivan Gasparyan Trio, Hossein Alizadeh, Daby Toure and Bruno Canino. Almost all bring a rare instrument to play (Murkus and Del Sorbo are extraordinary vocalists) and great musical feeling.

As Demme shows, Avitabile’s gifts are not limited to musical experimentation. His passionate involvement with the poor and oppressed is expressively rendered in a song illustrated by real-life police photos of murdered bodies lying on Naples’ streets, and the vocal repetition of the phrase, “I have a dream.”

The Hollywood Reporter