class=”alignleft size-full wp-image-50505″ title=”Benda Bilili!” src=”” alt=”” width=”280″ height=”150″ />On occasion, factual subject matter presents itself that is just so inherently dramatic and uplifting that little intrusive shaping of the material by filmmakers is required. Benda Bilili!, a rousing documentary about a group of Congolese musicians whose very lives depend on playing music, is just such a story.

Brought and held together by Ricky, an industrious paraplegic man in Congo Kinshasa, Staff Benda Bilili are a group comprised of both disabled and able-bodied men, who play an infectious hybrid of funk and African and Latin rhythms, with a sprinkling of psychedelic guitar. They live in poverty in a city of over ten million people, where their infirmities place them on the margins of a hugely marginalised population. They sleep, rehearse and even record in the streets and in the motley local zoo. Getting a recording made and released represented a chance at a potentially massive improvement in their circumstances, a means to make a steady income for their families (Ricky for example has two wives and supports five children).

Filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye, who had immersed themselves in the culture of Kinshasa when making a previous documentary about musicians there, heard about Staff Benda Bilili and tracked them down. A bond was formed between musicians and filmmakers, and Barret and de la Tullaye became determined to help Staff fund and produce an album.

On the surface Benda Bilili! is a music documentary, but it is more than a simple celebration of exotic music a la Buena Vista Social Club. The joyful music and its role in these extremely disadvantaged men’s triumph over adversity is key, but it is also a look at a culture from a perspective that few in the West have seen.

Most of the population of Kinshasa survive by way of a sort of parallel economy and social structure; it is estimated that 100,000 children survive in gangs called shégués, who are routinely hunted down ruthlessly by the police, and receive a measure of protection from the disabled. The group includes a few of these street children, and we see satongé (a one string guitar) protege Roger Landu grow from a gentle and quiet 13 year boy to a self-assured professional performer by the film’s end.

Reviewers will be quick to anoint the group with esoteric zeitgeist music status, but the desperate circumstances that spawned the film and the music and the triumphant final act of the film give it more much poignancy and weight than the music of BVSC or the O Brother! Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Benda Bilili! opens in the UK in March 2011. Buy the CD now.

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I've worked in entertainment product development and sales & marketing in the U.S., UK and my native Canada for over 20 years, and have been a part of many changes during that time (I've overseen home entertainment releases on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray). I've also written and commentated about film and music for many outlets over the years. The first film I saw in the cinema was Mary Poppins, some time in the mid-60s: I was hooked. My love of the moving image remains as strong as ever.