Gypsy Caravan

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Directed by Jasmine Dellal. Fanfare Ciocarlia, Taraf de Haidouks, Johnny Depp (as himself), Antonio El Pipa, Maharaja and Esma Redzepova.

The inevitable difficulty with any concert film is getting past the “you had to be there” syndrome. No matter how great the footage — and there have been some terrific performance docs (Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz etc) — nothing beats the experience of actually attending the live show. To wit, Jasmine Dellal’s joyful but uneven documentary/concert hybrid, When The Road Bends, Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan, wants to eat its cake and save some for breakfast.

Following five Romani bands from four countries during their six week North American tour, the filmmaker bounces from performances to lively offstage interviews (including an illegal bit of fishing in downtown Ann Arbor) to the cities and villages these artists call home, creating an anthropological journey that effectively dispels many of the “gypsy” stereotypes but never finds a thematic or dramatic core.

Mostly shot by legendary cinematographer Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) the larger-than-life musicians and dancers come from Romania, Macedonia, Spain, and India, to play a heady mix of Romanian folk, Flamenco, jazz, Raga and traditional Indian. Splintered by history and geography, they experience each other’s “gypsy-ness” for the first time and develop a camaraderie fed by the common ancestry of their music. The thing that binds them is a shared history of persecution and hardship along with a fierce embrace of their Romani heritage. As Esma Redzepova, Macedonia’s “Queen of the Gypsies,” boldly asserts, “I never assimilated for anyone.”

A celebrated diva in her homeland and vocal force of nature, Esma, who was unable to have children, adopted and raised 47 parentless kids, taught them Roma culture and even brought several into her band. The common refrain with each of Gypsy Caravan’s amazing musicians and dancers, is a profound commitment to their communities, families and art; whether it’s Romanian brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia bringing electricity to their ramshackle village with CD sales or cross-dressing knee dancer Harish who had to abandon college to become the head of the household after his parents died.

Dellal uses the six-week tour as her framing device but her approach is scattershot. After the initial awkwardness of the opening week, there’s little conflict and the performers quickly embrace each other. Though their lively personal stories are always engaging, they never get to the heart of what it means to be Romani today. Because no over-arching question is asked, Gypsy Caravan struggles to establish its focus and rhythm, particularly in its chaotic first half hour. Worse is Dellal’s terrible choice to have the tour’s manager narrate factoids about each act over the crew’s headsets.

These missteps, however, do little to detract from the lavish costumes, whirling rhythms and soaring musical numbers on display. The concerts are filled with such casual flamboyance and stirring pride it’s hard to resist their charms. Whether it’s the electrifying Flamenco of dancer Antonio el Pipa and his scratchy-throated aunt Juana or the haunting violin-by-thread of 79-year old Nicolai Neaucescu, each performance offers a glimpse into the Roma heart. Which makes Dellal’s choice to truncate much of the music all the more frustrating. Hopefully the DVD release will offer them in their entirety.

Whatever failings Gypsy Caravan suffers as a documentary, it is well worth the price of admission to witness the spectacle of these incredible musicians on the big screen while catching the sprinkle of insightful comments — like Juana’s observation that so many have sought to exterminate the gypsies (notably Hitler, who pursued it with a fervor equal to the Jews) even though they’ve never had a country of their own or ever started a war. It is a testament to their spirit that after so many centuries of persecution and suspicion they seek to enrich the world with their music.

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

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