Here’s what we see when we’re given a peek inside a drawer in the home of Enzo Avitabile, the affable avant-garde Neapolitan composer and performer: a clutch of wooden North African reed-flutes and a perfect pink seashell the size of a fist.
Wispy-haired and charismatic, possessed of great spirit and a tough-to-categorize genius, Avitabile has dedicated himself to celebrating and bewailing the world about him through all the music that world has birthed—music that, in this film at least, resembles that seashell, seeming to be both the result of great artistry and a spontaneous expression of natural forces. Here, in Jonathan Demme’s travelogue/performance doc, Avitabile leads loose, thrilling jam sessions with masters of rare instruments from around the globe, including Ashraf Sharif Khan Poonchwala, Eliades Ochoa, Gerardo Nunez, and Naseer Shamma. The musicians sit in a circle in a cathedral in Naples, laying into their curious instruments, summoning up intense yet meditative string-band music suggesting life in some desert where all cultures are one culture.
Some performances are stranger, more art-song than Buena Vista Social Club, especially when Avitabile duets with a percussionist coaxing rhythm and beauty from a bucket of water. In interview segments, the talkative Avitabile shows off his family, gushes about how easy new software has made composing, and chatters about having played with James Brown and Cesária Évora. Later, he solos on a saxophone on the streets he grew up on. Demme has crafted yet another superb document of musicians at work, one as much about creation—and the sources of inspiration—as it is about performance. A wonderful film, as in, it’s full of wonders.