Thursday, November 15, 2018

Bali: Beats of Paradise

It’s about time somebody made a documentary about Gamelan music. It is as percussive as music gets, yet it has a bright, irrepressibly upbeat sound. People say it “shimmers” with good reason—it has to do with the tuning. Granted, Gamelan has not quite cracked the mainstream here in America, but its popularity continues to grow steadily. Master Gamelan musician and dancer Nyoman Wenten is determined to kick it up a notch through a collaboration with R&B singer Judith Hill. Livi Zheng documents their creative process and the making of the music video (also directed by her) in Bali: Beats of Paradise (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

In the 1960s, Nyoman Wenten and his wife Nanik performed good will tours through Mao’s China and Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, preparing them to live in today’s California. They teach in universities and train eager, multi-ethnic ensembles of musicians dedicated to traditional Gamelan. Something about the sound caught the ear of Judith Hill, whose own solo career has been on the upswing after she was featured in 20 Feet from Stardom.

Fusing their two styles of music would be a complicated process for many reasons, starting with the size and complexity of Gamelan ensembles. Yet, Wenten set an ambitious goal of one million YouTube views for the resulting music video (appended to Bali in its entirety as a stinger following the closing credits).

Frankly, “Queen of the Hill” is a much better, more representative showcase for Hill than for Wenten’s Gamelan ensemble, but it is still an opportunity for good publicity. Zheng also incorporates some really cool performances by Balawan, a crossover Gamelan guitarist, influenced by the finger-tapping style popularly associated with Stanley Clarke.

Bali clocks in at a succinct 55-minutes, but it features some highly cinematic images of Indonesia that would have looked incredible in IMAX. Zheng directs with confidence and flair, crafting an unusually dynamic doc. It is a rather unexpected follow-up to her previous feature, the martial arts narrative, Brush with Danger, but it featured some fight scenes that were also quite nicely directed and choreographed (it was just the script that was a little weak).

Bali looks good and sounds great. The film has a buoyant spirit, just like the Gamelan music it documents. Highly recommended for fans of world music and crossover soul and R&B, Bali: Beats of Paradise opens tomorrow (11/16) in New York, at the Cinema Village.