mon 20/05/2024

Benda Bilili! | reviews, news & interviews

Benda Bilili!

Benda Bilili!

A thrilling documentary that proves that self-belief can go a long way

On their Mad Max customised tricycles, Staff Benda Bilili prepare to take on the world

I must confess that when I first heard about Staff Benda Bilili - a Congolese band partly made up of paraplegics – I felt a little uneasy. The last thing that one wants as a (hopefully) trusted critic is to feel compromised by an obligation to give a positive review, or feel guilty about lessening their chances of bettering their circumstances with a bad review. Yes, the vanity and solipsism of your reviewer has no bounds!

But this visual and musical treat of a film wastes no time in informing us that there is no room for pity in the story of this resilient collective of musicians who, rather than just having a will to succeed, seem to have an endearingly cocksure confidence that success was their destiny (despite the fact that half the band’s members had already lived beyond the average Congolese life expectancy of 45).

We first meet these remarkable men in Kinshasa in 2004, busking on the pavement outside a restaurant. One guitarist has only a bottom E string on his instrument yet is able to knock out a rousing “Louie Louie”-style riff while other members slap out a vigorous rhythm with flip-flops on the dusty ground.  Presumably initial scepticism of French directors Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye turned quickly to trust or acceptance because what have you got to loose when you’ve got next to nothing in the first place? Fortunately this trust was well placed, as the two French film-makers pay for the recording of the band’s debut album Tres, Tres, Fort and document their lives for the next five years showing them as, by turns, resourceful, charming, tough and funny.

The rags to riches (or flattened cardboard boxes to mattresses, in SBB’s case) story of some world music acts has  threatened to overshadow or distorting their actual musical merit. For example, although the Buena Vista Social Club were undoubtedly a fine group of musicians, would they have really been as international successful for as long as they have been if it hadn’t been for Wim Wender’s award-winning picture? Already critics have compared the two films but I feel that their similarities are superficial. For one thing, SBB really rock; Tres, Tres, Fort isn't global easy listening for Dire Straits fans! This is apparent from the earliest raw field recordings made during rehearsals in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo, right up to the scorching performance on a big stage in front of an initially sparse audience at the famous Belfort Eurockeennes Festival in France at the film’s climax. One can’t help but share the band’s growing excitement as more and more people get drawn towards the stage, perhaps by the clarion call of the satonge: the humble little homemade instrument created by Roger Landu, the band’s youngest member.

Landu is really the star of the film (and in some ways the band too). While SBB were already producing a unique mix of Cuban mambo, Congalese rumba, and fierce American funk, prior to him joining them, as soon as Landu begins to tentatively pluck at his one-stringed old-tin-can instrument, it’s clear that it represents a new beginning for the band. Throughout the film’s 90 minutes we watch as Landu grows from a shy 13-year-old into both a confident human being and musician. At one point he says: “I’ll do great things with this instrument,” and you don’t doubt him for a moment. And so by the time the band are touring internationally, following the albums success, he has fully metamorphosed into the splendid butterfly that is the true guitar hero; throwing himself around the stage, his satonge now plugged into an effects pedal for added rock sustain.

While all this is going on, the directors manage somehow to also make this documentary a thrilling visual treat, even if our cinematic pleasure derives from how grittily picturesque poverty can look when captured by a good film-maker. There’s not a single frame of this movie which doesn’t hold the attention, from the boys risking life and limb to jump beneath a speeding train, to the paraplegic football match in which the two teams raise clouds of dust as they scramble and skitter across a grassless pitch as if their lives depended upon it. The one gripe I do have is not about the film but about its promotion. Was it really necessary or even useful to begin the publicity blurb with the tired, redundant words: “The feel-good movie event of the year”? Oh well, if a hundred-thousand Mamma Mia fans end up going to see it, I suppose it will have been justified.

Staff Benda Bilili perform "Je t'aime"

From rags to riches (or flattened cardboard boxes to mattresses, in Staff Benda Bilili's case)

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Fab review - can't wait to see this one!

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