Tonight the Walker Art Center will be screening the documentary Benda Bilili! for free, as part of its Target Free Thursday Nights series. This remarkable movie showcases an even more remarkable band: Staff Benda Bilili (loosely translated as “look beyond appearances”), a Congolese group comprised of four disabled musicians afflicted with polio since birth, as well as a rhythm section that features several ex-sheges (abandoned street kids in Kinshasa, Congo’s sprawling capital). Here’s a link to BBC Newsnight’s story on Staff Benda Bilili, hosted by Robin Denselow.
The Walker’s screening of Benda Bilili! tonight is even more significant following the unfortunate cancellation of the band’s U.S. tour due to difficulties with obtaining the band members’ visas (they were scheduled to headline the Cedar Cultural Center this upcoming Tuesday, the 27th). This means that the closest we’ll come to seeing this invigorating band perform live (at least for the time being) is through Renaud Barret and Florent de la Talluye’s documentary, which charts the band’s origins (forming and rehearsing—and eventually recording their debut album—in the Kinshasa Zoo) and their rising prominence after the European and stateside release of their album Très Très Fort in 2009.
While it’s too bad we won’t be able to see Staff Benda Bilili perform on a Twin Cities stage anytime soon, at least the documentary ably conveys the excitement, eclecticism, and soaring spirit of their music. As Denselow reports in the BBC segment linked to above, Staff Benda Bilili want to be known for the beauty and vivacity of their music, not by their underdog story or their physical handicaps. Benda Bilili! certainly traces the band’s burgeoning (and inspiring) success, but more important in Barret and de la Talluye’s documentary is the joy of their music and the restorative power of art. The film rises to a daunting challenge: it’s as exciting, euphoric, and ultimately moving as Staff Benda Bilili’s music, and one of the best musical documentaries made in years.