VENICE, Italy – Jonathan Demme's first experience hearing the music of Italy's Enzo Avitabile was such perfection that the Oscar-winning filmmaker said no one would believe it if he put it on film.
"I can recall this moment very vividly because it was just a very impactive life moment," Demme said in an interview at the Venice Film Festival, where his movie "Enzo Avitabile Music Life" premiered out of competition.
Demme was in New York City driving toward the George Washington Bridge, on his way home after a long day working, when he flipped on the radio and heard Avitabile being announced — picture-perfect timing.
"And now, I am seeing the bridge and the highway and the cars speeding by, with this extraordinary music, unlike anything I'd ever heard before," Demme said. "'I loved his voice, a tremendous rhythmic presence. Suddenly my life had gotten thrilling. I was in some adventure film."
Demme said immediately got his hands on all of Avitabile's music, which melds jazz with pop music and Afro-American beats and sacred chants.
And when invited to a film festival in Naples, he asked the organizer to arrange a meeting with the Neapolitan musician. The organizer did more than that: he proposed they make a film together, and rustled up financing from Italy's RAI, the state broadcaster which has a cinema arm.
Demme, best known for his Oscar-winning movie "Silence of the Lambs" as well as "Philadelphia" and "Rachel Getting Married," had previously made music documentaries about the Talking Heads and Neil Young — so it was easy to say yes.
"I believe that filming great live music is as pure a filmmaking experience as exists," Demme said. "Because you are not doing a documentary, you are not creating an artificial reality. It's you channeling this completely creative process that's happening right now in front of the lens."
As a filmmaker, he said the challenge is to capture on film the relationships between the musicians as they play, and to get as long a shot as possible without editing.
The Avitabile film, shot entirely in Naples, centers around jam sessions with a dozen world musicians at a Baroque church along with scenes from Avitabile's life, his middle class Naples apartment and the nitty gritty of his hometown of Marianella on the outskirts of Naples.
"I did have a lot of confidence in the visual power that lives in Naples," Demme said. "I was capturing Enzo's Naples," which he called "a tremendous melting pot."
The film is sure to draw wider attention to Avitabile, 57, who said jukeboxes were his first contact such musicians as James Brown, with whom he eventually collaborated. Avitabile trained at a music conservatory, but has avoided conforming to industry standards.
The Demme film project was "something unexpected," Avitabile said, adding, "From this grew a great friendship."
Demme said he can envision future collaborations with Avitabile.
"Conceivably there could be a soundtrack relationship someday," he said.