Thursday, April 07, 2011

Film Review: Benda Bilili! (2010)

The phrase "truth is stranger than fiction" is one of those curious aphorisms that most of the time seems quaint, even trite and banal, until a story comes along that proves just how apt it actually is. The story of Staff Benda Bilili, a band of street musicians from the Democratic Republic of Congo is one such example. Seriously, you could not come up with their story is you tried.

In 2005, French film-makers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye went to the DRC and more or less stumbled across Staff Benda Bilili on the streets of Kinshasa. The group, which was and is comprised largely of disabled musicians (Ricky Lickabu and Coco Ngambali, the two main creative forces of the group, both suffered from polio as children and were unable to walk as a result) who practiced in the mostly abandoned city zoo. Day and night, when they aren't practicing, they wander the streets, playing their unique brand of music, a collection of songs which simultaneously express their anger at the hardships that they have had to endure their whole lives and their unwavering optimism that someday, somehow, they will triumph.

Barret and La Tullaye were so spellbound by the charisma and sheer joie de vivre of the group that they spend most of the next five years travelling back and forth between France and Kinshasa, trying to raise enough cash to help Staff Benda Bilili to record an album. Their film then is a chronicle both of the band's against all odds quest for success and their own personal problems, which are so numerous and all-encompassing that, if this weren't real and if the people involved weren't so unfailingly likable, would be veer into the realms of pitch black comedy. Early in the film the shelter that houses several of the members and their families burns down, putting them out on the street. The first few attempts to record an album fall apart because of a lack of funds and the group's lack of recording expertise. The misfortunes pile ever higher.

Yet there is always hope, and this is represented beautifully in the film by Roger, a young boy who joins the group with his monochord - an instrument consisting of a metal can, a string and a piece of wood which he bends to alter pitch - at the age of 13. When we first meet him, Roger explains that he ran away from home so that he could raise money busking and return as a bigshot to get his family out of debt. His unflinching optimism in the face of everything that has gone wrong for him and his family, and his belief in the power of music to rescue him from his situation, is about as perfect a metaphor for the movie as you could possibly ask for.

Benda Bilili! is nothing short of a celebration of the power of music and the joy of being alive. Seeing the privations and challenges of the group at the start of the film, then following them as they eventually record an album (entitled Tres tres fort, or "very very strong", which pretty much sums up the band's philosophy), get to hear their songs being played on the radio for the first time and, eventually, playing to crowds of thousands as the tour Europe is heartwarming in the best possible way. Their success does not feel forced or unearned - if nothing else, the film does a wonderful job of showing what terrific musicians they are - because we get so clear a sense of how far they went and how strongly Ricky and Roger believed that they could beat the odds and finally eke a small victory against a world that had never given them a break.

Seeing the group of stage, caught up in the sheer ecstasy of performance and the energy of a large crowd loving their music, is one of the most beautiful and uplifting things I've seen in a film in a long time. Benda Bilili! is a funny, sad and brilliant celebration of music, love and hope that is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A