It’s the peculiar nature of art—whether it be film, music, literature, or painting—that it can be produced by people in any set of economic or social circumstances. While the image of the starving artist looms large in the public imagination, those who are most successful in creating lasting artworks are just as often, if not more frequently, quite comfortably off; after all, a certain amount of leisure is usually required for intensive creative pursuits. And then there are those from deeply impoverished backgrounds who use the tough stuff of life as raw material for their work and who view their art as the way out of a nearly impossible existence.
It’s in the latter group that the Congolese musicians documented by filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye in Benda Bilili! fall. The members of the band, whose full name is Staff Benda Bilili, eke out an existence on the mean streets of Kinshasa singing for their supper or simply begging for money. As the filmmakers’ foggy camera-on-the-street footage makes clear, the Congolese capital is no easy place for anyone in impoverished circumstances, but the group has the additional burden of being handicapped, the four core members being stricken with polio. Shot over seven years and detailing the group’s many downs (the burning down of the handicapped shelter where many of them live being the main one) and eventual ups (the recording of an album and triumphant international tour), Barret and de La Tullaye’s project turns its modest gaze on the process by which life is transmuted into art.
Actually, the film’s inquiry into the artistic method remains somewhat at the superficial level, but the directors do a fine job of emphasizing both the circumstances that lead to the music’s creation and the satisfying result of the irrepressible sounds, even if they skimp on the process of moving from the one to the other. Shooting footage of quotidian street life in which kids play with a tire in an open field, stop cars for money, or discuss their country’s dire prospects, the directors counter with the always upbeat sounds of the music whose lyrics may deal with sleeping on cardboard boxes but whose performance endows the musicians’ circumstances with a feeling of irrepressible optimism.
And that optimism pays off in the film’s final act, which covers the group’s European tour as they play the continent’s various festivals. Although this sequence gives us the movie’s most consistent number of musical performances, and documents the rise to stardom of the group’s youngest member, Roger Landu, who plays a haunting, high-pitched makeshift guitar called a satongé and who showboats like a madman on stage, the film falters by adopting too much of a celebratory tone. There’s no doubt the band deserves the adulation of the European masses, and it’s hard not to feel their joy at playing for thousands of cheering fans instead of a few people on a Kinshasa street corner, but by the third such scene, the steady diet of good vibes begins to wear thin, especially since it feels as much a vindication for the filmmakers, whose stated goal was to bring Benda Bilili to wider recognition, as it is for the group themselves.