By Phil Hall | August 29, 2008

Unless you are extremely familiar with Brazilian music, most of “Maria Bethânia: Música é Perfume” will be more than a little curious. This 2006 documentary, which is now getting a U.S. release, focuses on the popular Brazilian singer as she launches into putting together a pair of CDs for a simultaneous production and release. In the course of the film, she is joined by a number of influential Brazilian musical artists including Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Nana Caymmi. She is also able to get time away from the recording studio to visit her 100-year-old mother in Salvador da Bahia.

Bethânia comes across as a charming and refreshingly ego-free icon, and the film offers several glimpses of her packed-stadium concerts, where the audiences sing along to her emotional ballads. And the sequences involving her homecoming provides a genuinely positive emotional experience.

Yet the film is clearly not being made for people who are unfamiliar with the star and her career, which spans four decades. After 82 minutes, it is difficult to determine who this woman is and how she became a major recording star in her country. The film lacks vintage video or audio clips from Bethânia during previous years, so it is hard to determine how (or if) her style evolved over time. When the star talks about her music choices, it is hard to put this information into proper perspective without knowing where she was coming from. I needed to research the subject online to fill in many gaps left by filmmaker Georges Gachot.

In fairness, the film is well-made and this review should not be viewed as a slam. Indeed, Maria Bethânia fans will love this film.

But I genuinely wanted to learn more about the subject, and I wish that the entire onus wasn’t dumped on my lap to seek it out. Since the film makes the assumption that everyone knows Bethânia’s music and history, and considering that she is not very well known in the U.S. beyond the Brazilian corner of the world music niche, I suspect that my confusion with the subject matter will not be a solitary puzzlement during the film’s U.S. run.

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