Friday, April 24, 2009

Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart

It’s been a while since the banjo got some movie love, perhaps going back to Deliverance, which was probably a mixed blessing for the instrument’s image. Countering the banjo’s poor white Southern stereotype was one of the prime motivations of Béla Fleck’s musical expedition to Africa, that Sascha Paladino documents in Throw Down Your Heart (clip here), which opens today in New York.

Fleck, a fixture of No Depression magazine, is unquestionably the most important banjo artist on the scene today. The innovative bluegrass and sometime jazz musician has also inspired scores of innovative string bands through his example. So he has great credibility explaining the African roots of his instrument of choice and his mission to “bring the banjo back to Africa.” Actually, the instrument’s African origins may not be universally accepted, but why let a few stickler ethnomusicologists stand in the way of a good concept for a documentary?

The most important element of Throw is the music of course, and happily, it is often quite remarkable. In fact, it is downright shocking how good the sounds of the banjo and mbira blend together. Fleck also has some stirring collaborations with vocalists and we even hear him play an enormous marimba-like instrument.

In addition to being a very talented musician, Fleck seems like a reasonably nice guy in Throw. However, maybe he is the victim of editing, but his emotional responses sometimes seem out of proportion to his given situations, as when he is moved to tears when leaving on the second leg of his journey.

The music of Throw is indeed very cool, and it should introduce some amazing African musicians to American audiences, which is definitely a good thing. It will be a great DVD release, perfect for the Starbuck’s crowd. However, some audiences might find it insufficiently cinematic on the big screen. It opens today in New York at the IFC Film Center.