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Benda Bilili!: Film Review

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In this disturbing and inspirational documentary, filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye focus on an amazing street band, the Staff Benda Bilili.

CANNES -- Four paraplegics and three "abled" men with homeade instruments make the sweetest music on the "meanest streets" in the Congo. A rousing depiction of unimaginable poverty and transcendent resolve, "Benda Bilili!," which loosely translates to "beyond appearances," should strike strong chords on the festival circuit and enthrall cable viewers.

In this disturbing and inspirational documentary, filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye focus on an amazing street band, the Staff Benda Bilili, who have charted one of the most unlikely success stories in all the world. They've vaulted from the rancid streets of the largest sub-Saharan population glut in Africa, where they played for pittances, to performing before well-heeled crowds in the posh capitals of Europe.

The band takes their name from the Staff Benda Bilili, a street syndicate that lays down the law in the central city, and tries to defend the tens of thousands of street kids who sleep on cardboard and forage the alleys for survival. The paraplegic musicians and singers are a surreal sight: They make their way around on "Mad Max"-like motorized tricycles and camp down like street nomads in a hideous street square.

Yet, "Benda Bilili!" is no simple rag-to-riches story. It's more a story of the divinity of these stricken souls who have always had big hearts and generous outlooks even in their physical hell holes. Their music, in Western terms, is layered with an Elmore James-like blues sound and propelled by a percussive and resonant beat. It's infectious and, incredibly, joyous.

Most magically, if one were to listen to their music but not know anything about their heart-wrenching situation, their compositions sound as if they've come from the luckiest and happiest performers in the world.

The most striking band member is Roger, a shegue (street kid), who has forged together a one-string guitar attached from a can, and with an old sloppy bow, he evokes the most stirring and soulful musical sounds.

Paced with a tight narrative cadence and shot with a jagged verite style, the film's aesthetics are fittingly true to the music and spirit of the Benda Bilili.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Directors' Fortnight
Sales: Funny Balloons/Studio 37
Production companies: Screenrunner,Yves Chanvillard et Nadim Cheikrouha, La Belle Kinoise, Florent de la Tyllaye et Renaud Barret
Cast: Cubain Kabeya, Paulin Kiara-Miagi, Roger Landu, Montana, Coco Ngambali, Theo Nsituvuidi, Ajuan Tanga-Suele
Directors: Renaud Barret, Florent de La Tullaye
Producers: Yves Chanvillard, Nadim Cheikhrouha
Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym
No rating, 95 minutes