Michael Franti in Stay Human

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Michael Franti
STARS Michael Franti, Robin Lim

According to Michael Franti, musician, social activist, and driving force behind the new documentary Stay Human, the great divide in today’s world isn’t between the left and the right or between different religions. As he makes clear, it’s between “cynicism and optimism.”

With Stay Human, Franti prefers to focus on the “optimism” side of that equation. An admirable individual who’s passionate not only about his music (which he performs solo or with his band Spearhead) but also about the world around him, Franti has made a movie that easily could have been the worst type of vanity project: a smug, look-at-me endeavor highlighting his own achievements in sociopolitical and environmental activism. Instead, Franti humbly spends much of the film serving as host, allowing others to emerge front and center as they discuss their own efforts to remain upbeat in an increasingly downbeat era.

Franti hopscotches around the globe to chat with various individuals who have inspired him. Among them are Robin Lim, a Philippine-American midwife (and 2011 CNN Hero of the Year) who has established numerous birthing centers for low-income women; Arief Rabik, an Indonesian environmentalist whose employment of bamboo in building materials has served and strengthened his community; and Busisiwe Vasi and Sive Mazinyo, two young South Africans who seized upon educational opportunities as a way to simultaneously lift themselves out of dire surroundings and inspire those around them. These vignettes all offer moments of encouragement and uplift — I was especially moved by the sequence in which a teary-eyed Franti tells the members of Indonesia’s Vogo tribe that they restored his faith and then proceeds to lead them in a chorus of his band’s Top 40 hit “Say Hey (I Love You).” There’s also a sweet moment when Sive, decked out in his school graduation attire, is circled on the street by friends and neighbors, all visibly proud of this young man and buoyed by his achievement.

Still, the most affecting interlude unfolds here in the U.S., as Franti spends time with Atlanta couple Steve and Hope Dezember. The pair, who were married in 2012 (footage is shown of the ceremony), have since struggled as Steve’s body gradually became overtaken by ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), to the point where he can’t move and his wife must interpret his barely audible enunciations. This is a humbling tale, as the kindness of others has benefited the pair, their mutual love remains as strong as ever, and Steve’s acceptance of his impending demise is almost beatific.

Franti allows himself to take the mic on occasion, as he’s shown hanging out with his wife, talking to his mother on the phone (and, in a scene that takes place after she suffers a stroke, serenading her with a song), and chatting with his fans while on tour. Mostly, though, he’s content to sit back and let others hold the conversations. And when it’s his turn, he’s more likely to pick up his trusty guitar Mama Brown and let his fingers do the talking.

(Stay Human is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and other platforms.)

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