It was The Beverly Hillbillies (or rather, bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs strumming its theme song) that first drew 11-time Grammy-winning banjo sensation Béla Fleck to his musical weapon of choice—which, contrary to what most believe, didn't originate in the pig-squealing backwoods of Appalachia. On a heartfelt personal and cultural mission, Fleck financed a five-week trip to Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia, and Mali to revisit the banjo's actual African roots and place those five strings back in a more historically accurate context. Along with his audio engineer Dave Sinko and his half-brother Sascha Paladino—who directs this concert doc-cum-travelogue—Fleck meets and collaborates with locals, from a Ugandan village's only female thumb-piano player to blind multi-instrumentalist Anania Ngoliga and Malian superstar Oumou Sangaré. All the jams are fabulously stirring but not sappy, especially when Fleck duels with a Gambian man on a three-string akonting (forefather to the banjo), but there's nothing more to the film, as if Paul Simon took us behind the scenes of recording Graceland. It's refreshing to see a doc in Africa that's not about the heartbreak of HIV and genocide, but setting the bar low means the film could also have been a whole lot shorter.
Fleck and audience.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Aug. 7-Thurs., Aug. 13. Not rated. 97 minutes.