Out of the unique stories being told at this year’s London Film Festival, Benda Bilili may be one of the most unique in how it’s done and, of course, the main story.
A French documentary crew coming to Africa looking to make a movie about urban music find a group of four disabled, homeless Colognese men and children from the area who play various forms of instruments. So directors Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye decide to follow their progress and help fund their food, bills and eventually, a studio to use to record their first album. Starting from 2004 right until the release of their first album in 2009 and eventual tour across big independent music festivals in Europe, the film chronicles their progress from the streets of Africa, having to live on cardboard and barely being able to feed themselves, right up until the tour across Europe where they’re in hotels and living the life they knew they were destined to get.
Ricky, the band leader, is seen as almost an iconic father figure in Kinshasa, capital city of Congo. Despite being only able to mostly stay on a custom made tricycle like most of his band mates, his voice is beautiful and has as much passion as anyone else. His guitar has only one string, he stays in a center for disabled Colognese people with his kids and wife and gathers up the rest of the group for rehearsals in the local zoo. Yet, with all those obstacles, he is admired and has a strong determination to succeed. Coco is the other co founder of the band and has written songs along with Ricky and performs as much of the songs as he does. Like Ricky, he lives in the same place and deals with a large family where he is basically the bread bringer for the family with his music and even then, it’s mostly sitting outside of restaurants hoping that people give them some change after they come out.
The other character in this story is Roger, a 17 year old boy who comes from a village a long train ride and drive away from Kinshasa, but has always wanted to be a musician going as far as sell his school clothes because ‘school won’t get him to Europe’. The filmmakers bring him to Staff Benda Bilili and quickly become a favorite, with Ricky in particular being very impressed with the young man.
This becomes the main relationship that carries the film with Ricky seeing in Roger someone who wants the opportunity and when Roger gets the opportunity, he performs. Ricky takes Roger under his wing, seeing potential in how his instrument, which is basically a long twig and a giant can linked together with a very tight string, can be adapted into their songs. For an instrument made out of household objects and things from the forest, it actually sounds amazing when played the way Roger does, adding much more to the band’s already unique playing style. Along with that Roger gets one of the best lines in the movie as a payoff to his mother and sister’s pestering at him to not mess up when they travel around Europe.
What you begin to notice, especially in the music of Staff Benda Bilili, is not just how much emotion it gets out but also how united and determined the group is to succeed. There are points where, not to spoil anything, most people would have just stopped doing what they were doing and gave up, but even in the defeat of the group, the heart never stops beating. The entire movie is full of this great sense of optimism, lead by Ricky and his dream of going to ‘Europe’, as they picture fame and fortune to look like. Even when the biggest tragedies strike and affect their very livelihoods, Ricky doesn’t give up on the dream and neither do the filmmakers.
The only flaw I could kind of see was the editing. Some of the cuts made and scenes included kind of hurt the consistency of some of the film and as a result, didn’t flow as well as it really should have. You could also say that not enough of a description was put on any of the other members outside of Ricky, Coco and Roger because there are some fascinating characters in that group including choreographer Junana who dances despite having no legs and feet due to polio but it did seem that everyone in the band, adult or child, gets a chance to sign and are seriously likable in their own way.
Benda Bilili! is not just a fascinating look into a group who are looking to get big. It’s not just about the fact they have overcome great physical conditions to get where they are. It’s about what they have meant for the people they have look up to them and how, no matter what life has thrown at them, they would root for Ricky, Coco, Roger and the rest to get to ‘Europe’ and become successful. It’s a community uniting for one of their own and the payoff is superb.
It would be a cliché to call it a ‘feel good movie’ but I cannot say that I didn’t come out of the theater with a giant grin on my face feeling like I could do anything and, more importantly, wanting to buy that damn album. If you like music in any way or like a damn good underdog story, this is probably one of the best you’re going to find.
Benda Bilili is being shown on the 21st and 22nd October and can be booked here. The film is expected to come out to general release in November. Tres Tres Fort (“Very Very Strong”), Staff Benda Bilili’s first album, is on iTunes for £7.99.