Directed by: Barry Levinson
Premise: A washed up talent manager (Bill Murray) supporting a USO show in Afghanistan discovers a local singer (Leem Lubany) and recruits her for the television show Afghan Star.
What Works: Rock the Kasbah is at its best when the film plays as a political farce, which it does for about the first half hour. Bill Murray’s character is in Afghanistan to stick his hand into the trough of money that western governments and NGOs are dumping into the war effort and while there he falls in with a pair of war profiteers played by Danny McBride and Scott Caan. Their scenes have a wild and absurd energy that could have been spun off into a much better movie. Rock the Kasbah is primarily about Murray’s character attempting to get a young woman on an Afghani talent show. Throughout his career, filmmaker Barry Levinson has made movies about the relationship between media and politics such as the feature films Wag the Dog and Man of the Year and the documentary PoliWood. Rock the Kasbah is based on the real life stories presented in the 2009 documentary Afghan Star in which musical performers incurred death threats for appearing on the local version of American Idol. In this movie, Bill Murray’s American talent agent discovers a young Peshtun woman with a musical gift but her culture forbids women from singing. At its best, Rock the Kasbah is about the risks that this young woman takes to make her voice heard and the film is mostly an affirmative statement of the power of mass media. To the extent that this movie succeeds, it does so due to the performance by Leem Lubany as the Afghani singer. Lubany brings a lot to an underwritten role and her musical performances are quite good.
What Doesn’t: There is a lot wrong with Rock the Kasbah and much of that is due to the mess of a story. The film ought to be about Leem Lubany’s character. This is, after all, a story about the people of Afghanistan and she has the most at risk. But Lubany is relegated to a supporting role and the movie constantly marginalizes her character. Instead Rock the Kasbah focuses on Bill Murray’s obnoxious American talent agent. The filmmakers seem to want to make an inspirational story or at least one in which a corrupt hustler comes to realize that the war in Afghanistan and the economic opportunism it enables come at a terrible cost to the people who live there. But instead Rock the Kasbah is a movie of an obnoxious, loud mouthed American who wanders into a country devastated by war, doesn’t understand their culture and never bothers to try, and is incapable of seeing beyond his own self-interest. Bill Murray doesn’t help matters. His performance turns the silliness up to eleven and he is out of sync with the movie, robbing it of gravitas. The America-centric view of Rock the Kasbah is best exemplified by a hooker with a heart of gold played by Kate Hudson. She is a Texas prostitute living in a trailer in the middle of Afghanistan who gets with Murray’s character and assists him in his efforts. Not only is Hudson’s character a cliché who has no place in this movie and serves no purpose in the story but she also gets far more lines than Leem Lubany. The tone of Rock the Kasbah is all over the place. The filmmakers are torn between making a political farce and a straight drama and the movie’s various parts never come together. Neither does the story. Rock the Kasbah is mostly a series of random events that don’t follow from one to the other and in the end of the story nothing is really resolved. Lubany’s character has performed on television and put herself at great risk but the film only superficially addresses what that means for her and for her country. And for all its focus on Murray’s character, none of the professional or financial problems that brought him to Afghanistan are resolved.
Bottom Line: Rock the Kasbah is a disaster. This movie goes wrong in nearly every respect. Bill Murray is often rightly praised for his comic talents but this is an instance where he hurts much more than he helps.
Episode: #567 (November 1, 2015)