Monday, 25 April 2016

Opportunity Rocks

“Rock the Kasbah”

This 2015 comedy directed by Barry Levinson – unjustly maligned by critics, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of only 8% – stars Bill Murray as Richie Lanz, a has-been rock tour manager who fancies himself a visionary agent/manager. With an understated tone and yet surprisingly controlled and well-tuned style, Levinson presents an enchanting romance, loosely adapted from a true story reproduced in the 2009 documentary Afghan Star, featuring the struggles of a driven rock ’n’ roll soul in the stark deserts of Afghanistan, condemned by the liberal consensus as imperialist and loutish as it imposes western values and culture on the marginalised citizens of war-torn Middle Eastern countries, and lambasted by conservatives as a thoughtless critique of American interventionist foreign policy. Obviously both can’t be right and, in my view, neither side is.

Levinson is neither aiming at a political critique with his film – at least, not a critique on the usual partisan issues thrashed out nearly daily in the press – but nor are politics and political ideas far from the centre of his thoughts here. The only other Levinson film I’ve seen was Rain Man, which I found nowhere near as subtle and artful and pleasurable as this one, and either of the two may have been the accident in his work, or he has simply developed since 1988. Rock the Kasbah manages to be beautifully self-aware, in a way that is neither distastefully arch nor depressingly cynical, and Levinson manages both his camera and his extraordinarily talented cast to delightful effect. Murray’s markedly creased face, and Levinson’s almost tender filming of it, yields a touchingly sympathetic portrait both of the enduring rock ’n’ roll spirit and of western lassitude.

Mitch Glazer’s script begins with Richie in a motel office in a dusty corner of Los Angeles, where he scams young, hopeful (and dubious) talents looking for a singing career, with an assistant-cum-client named Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), his only real professional client. During one of her “gigs” (in a steakhouse and bar out in the Californian desert), while directing her every move from the back of the audience, he attracts the attention of a USO representative, who persuades Richie to bring Ronnie out on a tour of Afghanistan to perform for the troops. From the moment Richie and Ronnie land in Kabul, having lost their luggage and being confronted by armed musclemen at every turn, the tour is a failure. Ronnie suffers severe sickness on the plane, and stress and depression in their hotel, and, right after swooning (stoned, with smudged makeup) into the arms of a menacing mercenary named “Bombay” Brian (Bruce Willis), disappears from the hotel, never to be seen again. Richie, none too bothered by the disappearance of a semi-helpless woman in a relatively hostile state, is, however, tremendously put out by the fact that she’s made off with his wallet, which contains all his money and identification.

While whiling away his time in Kabul, waiting for the American embassy to arrange his return, Murray befriends Riza (Arian Moayed), a taxi driver who ardently loves American pop music; the southern prostitute Merci (Kate Hudson), who works lavish parties for the Kabul élite as well as her own private operation from her trailer, saving up a handsome nest egg to finance her retirement to Hawaii; and two raucous arms dealers, Nick (Danny McBride) and Jake (Scott Caan), into whose plan to supply arms to a remote village in the mountains Richie is roped, in return for a passport and enough money to leave Afghanistan. In the village, to which Richie manages to drag both Riza and Bombay Brian (with the promise of great anecdotal material for his mercenary memoir) on an uproariously comedic adventure, they discover a young girl, Salima (Leem Lubany), with a terrific voice, and Richie is adamant that she appear on the local Idols-type reality show, Afghan Star, an impossibly controversial decision, seeing as she’s a Pashtun woman – i.e. banned from singing – and only knows American songs. There follows a caper, involving hiding in the boots of cars and deceiving village elders, to get Salima onto the show, keep her there, and get Afghan audiences to vote for her, and the tale is rounded off with an episode of tribal violence between Salima’s home village and a ferocious warlord, whose inner ranks are successfully infiltrated by the trusty – delectably lusty – hooker Merci.

If that plot is not something to satisfy a moviegoer, then what the devil is? The mythical properties of the film are somehow reinforced in the final showdown between the warlord and Richie with the villager-relatives of Salima, when Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” croons on the soundtrack and Murray gives an idiosyncratically moving, pseudo-Braveheart address in the face of the invaders. The emotion of the moment is not undercut, but underpinned by the sudden and comedic resolution, as is the entire film with all the irreverent – but never contemptuous – comedy. Levinson seems to suggest with Rock the Kasbah that for any intervention by America to work in any country, each fundamentally different to the US, much self-assessment and personal reflection is required on the part of the intervene-rs, and points of contact must be sought out and located where the culture and philosophy of America can complement the local culture. The recognition must also be made that the hardy revolutionary spirit of a rock ’n’ roller – the touching sincerity with which Richie holds his worldview of the sacred bond of relationships and the necessity of going on with the show – is present in people all around the world, and an ally can be found in the most unexpected corner of the most undesirable region. In its combination of romance and politics, comedy and mythology, Rock the Kasbah is deliberately minor and whimsical, but if we can’t have rock out in a movie about rock ’n’ roll and a hooker, no matter the stark backdrop against which it may be set, then where on earth can one find enjoyment?


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