Despite containing precious little for non-lovers of that much maligned genre of “world music,” Jonathan Demme’s documentary Enzo Avitabile Music Life cheerfully gets by on the spitfire energy of its eponymous protagonist. Originally trained as a saxophonist, Enzo Avitabile is a seasoned multi-instrument virtuoso, a frizzy-haired ball of energy more famous in his native Italy than in the States. Demme intercuts moments being shown around the countryside by Avitabile with a revolving-door jam in a massive cathedral, with guests including Spanish guitarist Gerardo Núñez, duduk legend Djivan Gasparyan, Palestinian chanteuse Amal Murkus, and Mauritanian singer-songwriter Daby Toure.
The film stresses Avitabile’s humanism through these performances, which usually see the diminutive vocalist riffing on societal ills over a slow-building loop from one of his accompanying VIPs, reaching emotional frisson before he and his guests congratulate one another on a job well done. Demme and his shooters, who make no attempt to hide themselves, let the songs play all the way through, but curtail each tidily before cutting back out to another Italian digression with Avitabile, here a kind of tour guide. Some of these, like a visit to an octogenarian “slow singer” in a far-flung countryside vineyard, are lessons in musical ephemera unto themselves. Others throw the musician’s vaunted reputation against playful pockets of Italian society, like a climactic stroll through Avitabile’s old stomping grounds in Naples where he’s descended upon by wisecracking, cheek-pinching old ladies.
Even if the film never transcends its subject matter, Demme’s light touch adds up to a charming portrait, only rarely fumbling into hagiography. Its lowest point sees Avitabile scatting a poem patterned off of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech before a symphony orchestra, jarringly intercut with zoomed-in digital footage of a draped black corpse and its surrounding crime scene. The implication is less that Avitabile sings for humanity’s redemption than for Italy’s migrant community (whose on-screen presence is otherwise nil), giving the juxtaposition a presumptuous utility. For a notoriously heavy-handed filmmaker, it’s a typical approach, but otherwise the doc is drawn in a breezy and clear-headed present tense, circling back always to a basic set of pleasures for its participants: skill, improvisation, gratitude, and collaboration.