Back in 2008, Setara Hussainzada got on to the stage to sing on Afghanistan’s version of American Idol, and broke into an impromptu dance, her head scarf slipping. The 25-year-old had lived half her life under the Taliban diktat forbidding music, and Setara’s act had few parallels. She was voted out of the competition, was accused of blasphemy, and earned herself death threats.
The furthest Rock The Kasbah gets towards stirring anything is Murray’s thinning hair.
And that’s not just an insult to Setara — which it is — but also to Hudson, who hangs it all out there as the golden-heart prostitute with a name such as Merci.
How wrong could Levinson, with films such as Wag the Dog and Good Morning, Vietnam behind him, gone? Just look at the possibilities. Taking off from Setara’s story, the premise is that the man who “discovers” her and brings her to the TV show Afghan Star is this washed-out, middling rock talent manager, Richie (Murray), from California. Richie is in Afghanistan with his only client, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), to perform for the US troops, but the scared Ronnie runs away the same day with his passport and money, leaving him stranded.
Rock The Kasbah tries many things without any sense of history, geography or, less ambitiously, irony. Americans have the run of Kabul, from small-time salesmen back home who are now “ammo kings”, to mercenaries (Willis) reeling in dollars as hired guns, to the brands that the Afghans sport, from shirts to sunglasses. Richie finds himself in an “exclusive” club past checkpoints where they are fired upon, and Merci herself has a roaring business across nationalities, whom she promises with complete seriousness “to do things that would be considered illegal in every civilised country in the world (rather rich, this being Afghanistan)”. Her trailer-brothel is protected by what look like American troops.
Somehow Richie finds himself in the village where the girl inspired by Setara, Selima (Lubany), lives. He is bowled over by her singing, hearing her one day over deserted sand dunes (the film’s only wow moment), but her Pashtun tribe won’t hear of her participating in a singing competition.
The Afghans are all frantic creatures out to battle, the Americans are sensible people guiding them towards the right way, and Richie is this meddler with no sense of consequences, or tribal affinities.
We see quite a bit of Richie, more than needed of Merci, and little of Selima. And, really, the best person to harbour a girl on the run for breaking traditional taboos is Kabul’s best-known prostitute!
Rock The Kasbah was shot in Morocco, they really don’t have qasbas in Afghanistan (a fact the film itself mentions and then discards), Setara sang Afghan songs and not Cat Stevens in English, and she was up against more than this film cares about. The popular anchor of Afghan Star, Daoud (Land), himself later took asylum in the US.
Doud, in fact, is the only Afghan who refuses to be “talked to” by Richie in the film, telling him “America has been doing the same to us for ages”. Even granted that, to take an essentially Afghan story and turn it into an essentially Hollywood one, is a new one even in America’s history in the region.
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Leem Lubany, Beejan Land