The Review: We think of the documentarian as our eyes and ears into a different world, giving us the chance to witness events first hand or to gain an insight into an as yet untold story. But what if that story wouldn’t have been told without that insight? Benda Bilili! is somehow more than a documentary, it’s an active witness of the evolution over half a decade of a group of street musicians from the streets of Kinshasa in the Congo into a band whose music, and musicians, have travelled the world. But it’s a journey guided by unseen hands, as documentary makers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye track the efforts to get the band heard by a wider audience.
When we first meet Staff Benda Bilili, it’s 2005 and Barret and de la Tullaye have been documenting the lives street musicians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the process discovered the fantastic sound made by the Staff, but now begins the long struggle to get their music heard. The group, led by ‘Papa’ Ricky and Coco, use their music to express the frustration at life in the slums of one of Africa’s poorer countries and their hopes and dreams of a better life, or at least a simpler one. Despite the fact that all are confined to tricycles after suffering, as many have in that area, from the effects of polio, this rarely rates high enough up the list of life’s hardships to get a mention. The music has struck a chord within the film-makers, but it’s a long journey to get them recorded and there are deeper hardships to come before they get their big chance.
That unseen guiding hand also has another influence: as talent scouts. In covering the rest of the city in a search for other musicians, the one who immediately stands out is Roger, a young boy who has developed his own instrument from little more than a tin can, a stick and a piece of string. The group can also see his potential, and take him under their wing – the passage of time being most reflected in his evolution from boy to young man and the group’s soloist during the documentary. His story alone would be both inspiring and uplifting, but given that it’s just a small piece of a much larger story, which feels almost too good to be true, means there’s plenty of narrative to fill the running time over the five years that passes.
During that time we get a mixture of insight into the family lives of the various members, and to some extent the pressure that the band is under to succeed and give back the benefit to their families, and there’s a feelgood vibe to proceedings. Most of the footage is low quality, grainy handheld footage, but that of course is driven by the situation; what does come over loud and clear is the music, which from the first recording sessions in Kinshasa zoo to their budding concert performances captures the infectious blend of reggae and blues that brings their music alive and has rightly won them acclaim the world over. It’s a tremendous story, efficiently told with just enough powerful moments to keep their story on the right side of interesting the whole time. As Staff Benda Bilili would say, very very strong.
Why see it at the cinema: If we’re being completely honest, it’s not for the picture, which is of consistently low quality. But if your cinema has a good sound system, then a good time should be had by all.
The Score: 8/10