Enzo Avitabile is often credited as an Italian saxophone player. But his work is not limited by either a singular cultural heritage or the mastery of a select instrument. The title of Jonathan Demme’s latest music documentary, Enzo Avitabile: Music Life, is pointedly appropriate, as it provides a portrait of an artist whose life revolves around the exploration, performance, and philosophy of music in all of its eras, genres, iterations, structures, and physical forms.
Music Life finds Demme once again exercising an intimate, fly-on-the-wall style that both hides and reveals the constructedness of his approach to the documentary form. Using no archival footage, the structure of the film oscillates between Avitabile’s performances with various collaborators and his daily life: writing music, talking about music, encountering fans, etc. This isn’t necessarily a verite fly-on-the-wall approach; Avitabile is always aware of Demme’s camera, and plays to it, showing off his collections of books about ancient musical scales and his wall littered with pictures of himself with other musicians (including an amusing blow-up of Avitabile and Tina Turner). We do get a glimpse into Avitabile’s life, but there’s little doubt that such events would not have happened the same way had Demme’s camera not been there. Many of the music performances, in particular, seemed designed and executed specifically for the film itself. We hear audiences that we never see. This is a functional approach, a decidedly cinematic way to depict good music, but this is certainly a portrait of Avitabile that foremost serves Avitabile.
For the uninitiated, there is little history or context provided about Avitabile that would adequately illustrate his influence and contribution to music, much less outline the role music has taken in his life prior to the moment that Demme’s camera was introduced into it (it’s worth noting that the film seems to have been made quite directly for an Italian audience). Though we are invited into Avitabile’s “life,” it’s a glimpse that seems well-commandeered by Avitabile himself. Outside of musical performances, we barely even get a sense of how Avitabile behaves around other people besides the off-screen Demme.
There is one notable exception to this rule, and that’s a moment towards the end of the film in which Avitabile encounters his fans, and a symphony of middle-aged and older women shout their praises toward Avitabile from their high-rise porches. In this candid moment, we get a sense of how the beloved musician handles his fame. But for the most part, while Avitabile seems by all the evidence provided here to be a kind and genuinely passionate person, his engagements with the camera unproblematically serve the legacy of an existing fame, whether he’s discussing his encounter with ancient instruments or spouting off an impromptu American Jazz Studies 101 lecture.
As a result, Music Life is a film about a personality that carries little personality of its own. It doesn’t carry the palpable passion for the subject that Demme’s Neil Young documentaries do, and its excursions into the everyday life of music feel too determined to provide anything revelatory about that giant vector in which music and life overlap. Moreover, it doesn’t always know what it wants to be. The film occasionally breaks is overall structure by turning to stock footage to illustrate the paper-thin activism in Avitabile’s lyrics or by exhibiting the touch-and-go process of a rehearsal, but the focus throughout its 80-minute runtime never quite solidifies.
That said, there is one moment that strikingly and indicates an entirely different direction this film could have pursued. Avitabile himself at one point conducts an interview with musician Zi’ Giannio Del Sorbo, an expert at one of the many rare instruments Avitabile seeks for collaboration. This is not a correspondence between two musicians, but a look into the relationship between a pedagogue and his student (and a moment that temporarily diverts from Avitabile’s occasional flirtations with orientalism and minstrelsy). It’s a dialogue that reveals a passion for music found in earnest correspondence.
Avitabile no doubt sees himself as an eternal student in his music life, devoted to a continued dig through history, across styles, and between collaborations. It’s unfortunate, then, that the documentary about him is so monologic.
Enzo Avitabile: Music Life is now playing in New York City and will open in Austin and Los Angeles next week. For more details and future release dates visit the film’s website.