Benda Bilili!

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Hot on the heels of ‘Anvil!’ and ‘Heavy Metal in Baghdad’, this year’s inspirational rags-to-riches rockumentary follows Staff Benda Bilili, a ragtag gang of Kinshasa street children and middle-aged wheelchair users who have over the past decade coalesced into one of central Africa’s most highly regarded musical outfits. It’s a remarkable tale told in stark, straightforward terms, following the band’s central players – mouthy frontman Ricky Lickabu, soulful co-founder Coco Ngambili and adolescent prodigy Roger Landu – as they fight to keep the band together in the face of personal tragedy, record their first LP in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo, and head to Europe in search of fame and fortune, or at least enough money to buy a mattress each.

The danger with a film like this is that, as with the recent ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’, the characters and their journey will outshine the music. But that’s far from the case here: Staff Benda Bilili’s songs are impressive, based in rumba but ranging across the global spectrum, with Landa’s keening home-built milk-can lute adding an eerie, otherworldly edge. Couple this with some gorgeous, richly textured street-level photography by the directors, and the result is artful and utterly compelling.

The film could use a sharper edge – issues with politics, race and religion are only ever alluded to – and the up-from-the-gutter narrative is a familiar one. But as an uplifting, understated and wholly engaging insight into a world entirely unlike our own, ‘Benda Bilili!’ is wonderful.

Release details

Rated: PG
Release date: Friday March 18 2011
Duration: 86 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Renaud Barret, Florent De La Tullaye