Depending upon how performance films like Stop Making Sense and Swimming To Cambodia are classified, Jonathan Demme can now be said to have made almost as many documentaries as fictional narratives. In certain respects, though, non-fiction isn’t a good fit for him. The same generosity of spirit that informs his best work turns his docs—invariably about people he loves, from a Hurricane Katrina victim to Jimmy Carter—into mushy hagiographies. Enzo Avitabile Music Life, Demme’s awkwardly titled portrait of the celebrated Italian saxophonist and singer-songwriter, features enough music to be worthwhile for fans and curious newcomers, but it’s a snooze whenever Avitabile doesn’t have an instrument in his hand or a microphone in front of his face (as opposed to dangling over his head—this film revels in visible boom mics, for some reason). It’s easy to see why Demme admires the man, but amiability doesn’t make for a great documentary subject. If anything, it tends to be something of a drawback, offering only warm fuzzies.
With his shock of curly hair and a cross dangling from one ear, Avitabile does at least have a memorable look, as well as a voluble personality. In the film’s most compelling non-performance scene, he excitedly shows off a software program that allows him to hear his classical compositions right away, without the need to round up an entire orchestra—a technological marvel that would likely make Bach and Mozart weep. Too often, though, Demme just follows Avitabile around while he does things of marginal interest, like visit the conservatory where he learned music theory as a boy. (Even Paul McCartney pointing to the exact spot where he met John Lennon wouldn’t be all that exciting, really. Unless he got all emotional about it, but nothing of the sort happens here.) We meet Avitabile’s adult children and learn that they love their dad and think he’s the absolute best, which, you know, is nice. It’s less Behind The Music than just Vaguely Adjacent To The Music, demonstrating only that musicians can be as ho-hum as anyone else.
Thankfully, that’s only about half of Music Life’s brief running time. The other half consists of jam sessions featuring Avitabile and a host of fellow virtuosos from Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, Mauritania, and elsewhere. It’s not made explicit whether these are longstanding associations—it’s possible (though unlikely) that Avitabile is meeting everyone for the first time—but their pleasure in playing together is sincere and infectious. And it’s no slight to Avitabile, who would surely concur, to note that he’s frequently the least fascinating aspect of his own movie. Having previously worked with Neil Young, Robyn Hitchcock, and the Talking Heads, Demme deserves credit for bringing more obscure talents to an American audience. But he was smart enough, back in 1984, not to bother engaging David Byrne in conversation, or show him relaxing before taking the stage, and that’s a purist mode he’d do well to rediscover.