Throw Down Your Heart
Music takes him where words can’t
‘The banjo has been associated for so long with a white Southern stereotype,’’ says Béla Fleck, an American virtuoso of the instrument with 11 Grammys under his belt. And so, in the documentary “Throw Down Your Heart,’’ Fleck sets out to upend racial paradigms and unearth the African roots of his chosen instrument on a trek through Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali.
The film, directed by his half brother Sascha Paladino, is a sweet and stirring exploration of the universal hypnosis of music, but the monotonous plot ultimately snuffs out the film’s spark. Fleck is a pleasant, guileless presence, with his shy smile and shuffling walk; despite his lackluster charisma, his deftness on the strings is dazzling.
The film offers a vivid panorama of African culture: In Uganda, Fleck plays a 12-foot xylophone and jams with the country’s only female thumb-pianist. In Tanzania, Maasai tribesmen lend their rollicking chants to his melodies. In The Gambia, he finds the three-stringed akonting, an early ancestor of the banjo made with animal skins and split gourds. Through it all, Fleck seems at a loss for words, stumbling through small talk and staring feebly as a Ugandan musician weeps during a song about his dead father.
Subtitles are few and far between. By leaving many scenes elegantly untranslated, Paladino casts his dialogue in the same rhythmic realm as the music. And the music - a rich weave of marimba and vocals and finger-plucked strings - is captivating.
But the film’s interminable length is its main affliction. By the time Fleck reaches Mali, the jaunty twang of the banjo seems shrill. The colorful scenes in which Fleck meekly interjects himself into the raucous harmonies of African musicians have lost their charm, and the magic of intercultural polyphony has dulled.
“Béla is somebody who might have a hard time expressing himself with his mouth,’’ says the queenly Oumou Sangare, a renowned singer Fleck meets in Mali, “but can express himself perfectly well’’ with his banjo.
Fleck, then, is an ideal protagonist for a film about the adhesive power of music and inadequacy of speech. Even as the plot sags and he grasps clumsily for words, his fingers on the strings are almost momentum enough.
Laura Bennett can be reached at email@example.com.