Soft-headed and sweet-tempered, “Journey to Lasta” may be little more than a dramatic advertisement for Ethiopian band Lasta Sound — but as advertisements go, it’s a thoroughly pleasant one. Though standard in presentation and a tad too leisurely paced at just over two hours, writer-director Wondwossen D. Dikran’s soulfully mellow feature boasts a handful of fine performances and some fairly irresistible music. Pic, which preemed on the East Coast in October prior to Pan-African fest screening, looks to reap decent (and diverse) audience reception at future fests.
Lasta Sound guitarist Kirubel Assefa and drummer Teferi Assefa play down-on-their-luck versions trying unsuccessfully to eke out a living in L.A. while pursuing their reggae passions on the side. In floats Kirubel’s childhood pal Tsegaye (Tsegaye B. Selassie), a gentle soul who becomes both the band’s frontman and its musical-spiritual guru, energizing his friends in preparation for an upcoming band competition that could help them make it big.
Hindering them are oily promoter Binyam (Johnny Ashenafi in a spry, mischievous turn), who has Teferi under binding contract and takes a huge cut of the band’s meager earnings, and Kirubel’s bitchy girlfriend, Selam (Jessica Beshir), who quits the band early on and even considers quitting Kirubel to pursue her own dreams.
With its mystical underpinnings and soap-operatic “I love you”/”Love is not enough” dialogue (about half of which is spoken in the actors’ native Amharic with English subtitles), story frequently flirts with the risible, particularly in a seemingly unrelated subplot about a homesick, coke-addled painter (Tsehaie Kidane). But if the material isn’t exactly fresh, the actors display enough conviction to sustain interest through the draggier stretches.
Besides Lasta Sound, which struts its stuff impressively during the obligatory battle-of-the-bands climax, pic also features perfs by Latin bands Quinto Sol, Chakra, Upground and Ras Michael. Yasu Tanida’s carefully underlit cinematography adds immeasurably to the low-key music-scene vibe.