By Don Simpson | October 17, 2013
Director: Jonathan Demme
Okay, I admit it. I knew absolutely nothing about Enzo Avitabile before screening Enzo Avitabile Music Life, but there is something about Jonathan Demme’s approach to music documentaries that appeals to me and watching Enzo Avitabile seemed like a necessary step towards uncovering that je ne sais quoi.
Somewhat similar in approach to Stop Making Sense and Storefront Hitchcock, Demme focuses on the uniqueness of the performances of Avitabile’s music. A Neapolitan saxophonist and vocalist who creates intricate, multiethnic jazz compositions, Avitabile possesses a level of songwriting genius that exists on a comparable intellectual plane to David Byrne. Like Byrne, Avitabile’s greatest strength is in his ability to choose teams of collaborators from around the world, then fuse them together in the recording of a song. Avitabile is well known for his thorough knowledge of world music — specifically the instruments and rhythmic structures — and ability to use that information in the development of intriguing collaborations. Whether or not you recognize names such as Eliades Ochoa, Naseer Shamma, Daby Touré, Trilok Gurtu and Amal Murkus does not really matter, Enzo Avitabile is about the magic that happens when Avitabile creates music with these talented people.
After documenting songwriters such as Byrne, Robyn Hitchcock and Neil Young, Demme’s artistic attraction to Avitabile is obvious. Demme has repeatedly revealed a certain fondness for capturing unique creative processes in the act. He either assumes that we already know the backgrounds of these artists, or he does not think that matters when it comes to their genius. He makes a fleeting exception for Avitabile, however, considering his strong ties to his Naples. Though, interestingly enough, Demme opts to allow Avitabile the chance to revisit his past at the end of the documentary, practically as an afterthought.
What surprises me most about Envo Avitabile is Demme’s apparent disinterest in the visual elements of the film. This is an incredibly intimate production shot primarily with handheld cameras; there are no lighting rigs, it is all just point and shoot camerawork. Curbing his auteurism, Demme lets Avitabile provide all of the glitz and eccentricities of the film. Luckily, Avitabile possess more than enough charisma to distract from the gritty production.