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Throw Down Your Heart - Review of Throw Down Your Heart - 2008

Bela Fleck Brings The Banjo Back To Africa

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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Throw Down Your Heart - Review of Throw Down Your Heart - 2008

Bela Fleck with African Musicians

Argot Pictures
In Throw Down Your Heart, filmmaker Sascha Paladino follows banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, on a four-country tour of Africa, bringing, as stated in the film's subtitle, the banjo back to the places where it - or similar instruments - originated. Fleck wants people to know that the banjo - mostly associated with Appalachian white music - is an African invention, brought to America by slaves. Fleck, a musician on a mission, is the film's central character. He seeks out African musicians, jams with them and tapes their sessions for a record he's planning to produce and distribute.

Music Mission Accomplished?

Enlightening the world about the origins of the banjo and the richness of Africa's musical heritage is an admirable goal, and the affable, well-intentioned, nimble-fingered Bela Fleck is well-suited to the task. Fleck's an adept banjo player who quickly picks up musical styles and easily establishes a rapport with other musicians. The music they make together ranges from good to absolutely superb. But does the filmmaking measure up to the great music and/or to Fleck's good intentions?

As the film begins, Fleck and crew get right into the mission at hand. With scant detail about how their odyssey was planned or what research was done in advance, they set off on their adventure, visiting Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali. Country locations are indicated on a map of Africa, so we're never quite lost - but it's not quite clear whether Fleck actually visited the countries in the order in which the visits are presented in the documentary. Why does this matter? The order of presentation is a key factor in the film's arc - because Mali, the final country presented, seems to have the most sophisticated music scene - not that Malian music or culture is necessarily more sophisticated, but, as we see in the film, the Malian music industry is highly developed, with well-equipped recording studios, popular venues and a galaxy of stars, including the revered Oumou Sangare and others.

That makes us wonder whether Paladino documented and is presenting Fleck's journey of discovery as it occurred, from beginning to end, or did he edit his footage to save the best for last?

What's the Story?

Bela Fleck with African Musicians

Argot Pictures
To be fair, tracing the banjo's roots, exploring multiple musical traditions and making music with dozens of locals is a huge and daunting undertaking, perhaps better suited to a series of films than packed into one 97-minute documentary. But, unfortunately, the lingering question about storytelling and editing ultimately undermines this film's strictly verite shooting style and its veracity. Are we to believe that we're privileged flies on the wall privy to events as they unfold, or are we being manipulated to a musical climax? Such a question is discomforting, and it's not the only one that arises.

Even more discomforting are some questions that occur when Fleck arrives at the first village he visits in rural Uganda, where people are impoverished but very proud of their culture and traditions. Introduced to the community by a local musician and translator, Fleck pulls out his banjo and begins plucking a romping, fingers flashing, technically intimidatingly bluegrass-y tune. The camera pans to faces of the villagers who look stunned. Not curious. Not enthralled. Just stunned. What, they seem to be wondering, is this show off all about, and how can we equally impress him?

Lingering Impressions

The reason for their reaction seems apparent when they respond shyly and self consciously with their music which is primarily percussive and vocal, until their version of the banjo - a single stringed instrument that works well enough but is homemade and comparatively primitive - is added to the mix. Their music is spirited and engaging, but we don't hear enough of it, don't have enough explanation of the tradition, don't see how it is sustained in the community.

When Fleck joins in the jam on his big bad-ass banjo - even after saying to one of his crew that he can't possibly fit in - he appears to be culturally insensitive, and that's a very offputting impression for him to make at the beginning of the film. Later, you can see that Fleck is genuinely moved by this villagers' music and hospitality - as he should be - and, in other settings, he works at picking up local musical riffs. You want to believe that he's a genuinely good guy, but that initial albeit unintentional Bwana stigma sticks to some extent. It's disruptive, and makes Fleck appear more flaky and less likeable than he undoubtedly is. And that's a shame because he's really this film's connective tissue.

Actually, it would've been good had Fleck, as protagonist, asked more questions of the African musicians and his or their handlers, the answers to which might have provided us with much wanted details and understanding.

More About the Music Please

As it is, there's too little distinction made between countries and cultures. Yes, we know we're in Gambia, where we're told that the country's 'akonting' is the closest kin to our banjo, and that Throw Down Your Heart is what Africans sold into slavery said before boarding ships that took them to unknown lands from which they'd never return. But how does Gambia's music culture differ from Mali's. And does Uganda's Christianity take it's music in a different direction from that of neighboring Tanzania, which is Islamic? It feels touristically superficial when Fleck and crew notice Masai warriors clad in their colorful garb, then give us a cursory look at their distinctive, complex culture - without acknowledging that the Masai are very secretive about their lifestyle and rituals.

In short, the film should cover less and tell us more. Presumably the African musicians know Fleck is auditioning them for the record he's making while on his tour, but we're never given a hint of their thoughts about international exposure and its impact on their lives.

Still, Throw Down Your Heart is entertaining. The music, as said, is really good, so see it for that.

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Film Details:

  • Throw Down Your Heart - 2008
  • Director: Sascha Paladino
  • Release Date: 2009
  • Running Time: 97 mins.
  • Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
  • Languages: English and French, Bambara, Jola-Fonyi, Swahili (with English subtitles)
  • Locations: USA, Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, Mali
  • Trailer
  • Company: Argot Pictures

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