Sons of the Wind: COLCOA Review

Sons of the Wind Still - H 2013

Sons of the Wind Still - H 2013

A less-than-penetrating portrait of four great musicians, but oh what a joyful noise.

The gypsy-jazz guitar is the star of a documentary valentine to the Romani way of life.

The spirit of the peerless Django Reinhardt is alive and well in the French documentary Sons of the Wind (Les fils du vent). Shooting over a period of five years, director Bruno Le Jean zeros in on four artistic descendants of the guitar maestro, offering affectionate and wistful glimpses at their nomadic way of life. As an exploration of the Manouche community, the film doesn’t delve far beneath the surface. But the extraordinary performances Le Jean captures, onstage and off, make the doc -- a selection of the recent City of Lights, City of Angels festival in Los Angeles -- a music lover’s delight. 

Among aficionados of so-called hot jazz, the film’s quartet of charismatic subjects are recognized virtuosos. They occasionally play together, but each has his own career, both as a featured artist and sitting in with other practitioners of the form. “We heard music in the womb,” one says. Another remembers watching guitarists as a kid and wanting “to play so bad I would shake.”

In the time-honored Manouche tradition (“Manouche” being the preferred term to the more general and sometimes derogatory “gypsy”), Angelo Debarre’s young son learns to play by watching his dad work the strings. Le Jean and cinematographer Bruno Romiguière are alert to the loving, competitive father-son dynamic, in their off-the-cuff duets and as Debarre watches the boy step into the busking limelight. 

The soulful Tchavolo Schmitt -- who played guitar and acted in the Tony Gatlif film Swing -- tears up while listening to the chords in ocean waves, while the younger Ninine Garcia explores more of a fusion sound on an electric version of the oversize jazz guitar. At a nighttime gathering by a caravan, the stylish and high-spirited Moreno plays while his wife, Marina, sings. 

But if they appear at all in the film, the men’s spouses and relatives are mostly relegated to the background, among the extended families in their caravan communities. Debarre explains why it’s important to him that the itinerant culture persists, while acknowledging that it complicates life in general and his work as a musician. In an always-connected age of technology that offers little respite from the rat race, Le Jean’s footage speaks volumes about the value of unstructured time and togetherness in the Manouche campsites. 

But the film also touches on the “Nomads not welcome” policies that are making that way of life increasingly difficult, with the French government dismantling illegal campsites and expelling Romani travelers from the country. Moreno, whose squeals of laughter recall Ricky Gervais, is the only one of the film’s central figures to have given up the traditional way of life for an apartment, having grown tired of the stress of rejection and police harassment. “Without our music,” he says with a knowing shrug, “we’re not wanted.”

It’s a subject worth exploring, but Le Jean’s treatment of it devolves into a clumsy mini-spiel for acceptance, with the stylistically jarring insertion of a few B&W headshots of Romanis, all of them smiling in an open, non-threatening manner. The images, clearly meant to debunk stereotypes about Manouche “foreignness,” are completely out of place in the otherwise intimate film. 

If it doesn’t go deep into its characters’ lives, the doc is fully in sync with their music. Romiguière’s camera is often at the musicians’ feet or close beside them as their fingers fly over the frets, in impromptu performances and before adoring crowds at the Django Reinhardt Festival in Samois-sur-Seine, playing news tunes as well as classics by Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli

When the film captures all four joining forces, even to rehearse, the results are transporting. Sons of the Wind makes clear that they’re not just carrying on a musical legacy; they were born to it. 

Venue: City of Lights, City of Angels (COLCOA)

Production companies: Les Films du Veyrier with Super Sonic Productions and Pepino Productions

With: Cast: Angelo Debarre, Ninine Garcia, Moreno, Tchavolo Schmitt

Writer-director: Bruno Le Jean

Producers: Pascal Metge, Bruno Berthemy

Director of photography: Bruno Romiguière

Editor: Ange-Marie Revel

International Sales: Wide Management

No MPAA rating, 92 min.