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STUDIO: Oscilloscope Laboratories
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
• Rehearsal for first live performance of EGYPT
• “Ansak” – homage to Umm Kulthum
• “Birima” performance
• A visit with Wyclef Jean
• Recording “The Messenger” with griot singer Moustapha Mbaye
• Oxfam photo shoot
Let’s take on the taboo of singing about Islamic religious figures in pop songs by making a giant pop record all about Islamic religious figures and then we’ll go on tour around the world and see what people think.
Featuring: Youssou N’Dour, Fathy Salama, Le Super Etoile De Dakar, The Fathy Salama Cairo Orchestra, Peter Gabriel
Cinematography by Nick Doob, Jojo Pennebaker, Scott Duncan, Hugo Berkeley
Produced and Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Beloved Senegalese pop music icon Youssou N’Dour creates his magnum opus with the album of Egypt, a
musically and culturally ambitious amalgam that praises Sufism’s
religious leaders through popular musical styles. Deciding to embark on
his world tour during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Youssou
receives mixed responses to his taboo-breaking efforts.
If Andrew Breitbart sees this, he may have an aneurysm. Someone send him this.
A horse-drawn cart bounces wildly as it crosses a vacant train track. This is one of the first images you see as Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love begins and it succinctly sums up precisely what the film is about: an ancient civilization trying to cope with living in the modern world.
I wanted to enjoy
this movie more than I did. Its themes and overall message fall into
line with many of my own personal and political beliefs, so I figured
that I’d be more moved and affected once the film came to an end. For
some reason, I wasn’t. Perhaps in writing this review, I can figure out
Youssou N’Dour is a legend in Senegal. For the past 30 years, he has been making music and for 30 years people have been gobbling up everything that he releases. And from the beginning, he has melded politics into pop music, creating generally uplifting and encouraging anthems in an effort to raise up the spirits of the plighted peoples of Africa.
“Uh, bro, this is a mosque.”
Much of the film follows N’Dour as he embarks on a world tour in promotion of his album, Egypt. As a devout Sufi Muslim, N’Dour knew that he was going to be met with much controversy when he decided back in the early-2000s that his next project was going to be an extremely ambitious musical collaboration with Egyptian composer Fathy Salama that would tell the story of the founding Sengalese Muslim leaders, the men who shaped their religious faith. Given the conservative nature of Islam with regard to music and the combining of pop culture and religious figures, N’Dour was taking a huge professional risk, yet he felt compelled to continue. And in case that wasn’t pushing the boundaries enough, N’Dour also decided to release the album during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
As expected, Egypt was met with immediate backlash upon its release in Senegal. At least, this is what we’re told: we only fleetingly experience the backlash. We mainly see it via quotes from newspapers shown on screen with gorgeous titles, from snippets of a brief conversation with Youssou’s sister and from his accountant, and through a couple shots of boxes of Egypt tapes not being sold. But that’s it. The sense that the entire country of Senegal, his people that have loved him for so long, have turned on him doesn’t come across in any real way that palpable. We never see Youssou having his heart broken by the way he’s treated after the release of Egypt. We don’t feel that it’s really as big of a deal as it’s said it is. I know that it was a big deal, but I didn’t feel it, and what else is the purpose of a film than to make me feel something rather than just know it, otherwise I could’ve just read a synopsis of events on Wikipedia.
Part of this lack of visceral backlash seen on screen is due to the fact that N’Dour is on tour this entire time, traveling through Europe and America. Since most of the film are snippets of these performances we don’t get to see the Senegalese reactions. Not a single person from Senegal is interviewed on film to express their disagreement with the Egypt album’s material. The closest we get is Youssou’s brother who questions the decision to release the album to radio stations, already knowing that no DJ would dream of playing a song called “Allah, Allah” on after some sexually-laced pop track. To me this is a big fault in the film and doesn’t properly create the stakes that are required in becoming invested in a story.
In fact, Youssou is welcomed warmly everywhere he seems to go. The only snag that they hit on tour – truly the only real conflict that we see – happens when they arrive in Dublin. The Cairo Orchestra refuses to go out on stage because people in the audience are drinking alcohol in the crowd — shocking, I know, considering it’s Ireland. After the head of the house asks the crowd to finish their drinks quickly so the band can play, there’s no revolt. No wild riots. No throwing of their beers at the stage. All’s pretty much civilized and understanding as people finish their drinks, allowing Youssou and the orchestra to perform without another hitch.
Only when N’Dour returns to Dakar and then attempts to film a music video at one of the most sacred spots in Senegal – the Great Mosque at Touba – that things take a darker turn: rumors run rampant that N’Dour has naked dancers frolicking for him in front of the camera — a response from the paranoia surrounding the combining of modern pop culture and religion that N’Dour is specifically taking head-on — that he and his team are forced to abandon the shoot and take off quickly for fear of violent repercussions from the angry mob. This sounds like the scene would’ve been rather intense, but we learn about most of it through interviews with security and others involved in the event after the event has taken place. There’s really only one tense shot of N’Dour being escorted through a mass of people to his awaiting van, but it only seems tense because of the context; watching the scene without the knowledge of the uproar, you’d assume that it was a regular attentive crowd trying to catch a glimpse of the most famous singer in the country. They all seemed rather calm and I never really felt like N’Dour was in danger of any actual harm.
No wonder Arena Rock got so popular. It’s like they weren’t even trying. Gabriel just said: “Um, yeah, put one row of lights here and then I’ll throw on some weird gray jumpsuit thing and just point to the side and that’ll be the show. We’ll make millions.”
While I have problems with the stakes in the film, there’s still much to like. N’Dour’s music is quite phenomenal — a unique blend of African, Arabic, and Caribbean influences unlike anything I’d ever heard, inspiring even if you don’t have subtitles to help understand the language. His voice soars effortlessly and gorgeous on your ears despite his lyrics feeling a bit on-the-nose — think Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World,” but then have that be every single song on the album. But, I can’t fault him for his idealistic sensibilities. In a continent ravaged by tribal warfare, poverty, famine, and disease, N’Dour’s message is an undeniably positive, bright beacon of hope.
And for that, I have to say that I find Youssou N’Dour, the person, to be a remarkable figure, a sort of musical Gandhi whose foe is not the British but rather the rigid and oppressive leaders of his own faith, and absolutely worthy of receiving the filmic treatment. His unique voice and message of a peaceful Islam is one that that needs to be heard more and more to combat the alternative soundbites that get way more airtime.
Youssou N’Dour, the documentary, on the other hand can’t quite live up to the man.
“Eddie Murphy? Seriously? C’mon, man, I’d rather have Chris Tucker play me in a movie than Pluto Fucking Nash.”
A fantastic picture and wonderfully recording audio. There’s much to like visually and sonically. The Special Features really don’t offer much more than just just more of what you already saw in the movie. If you love Youssou N’Dour, you’ll soak up every morsel you can get of him; otherwise, nothing too exciting here. This DVD did come with a CD, though, which, after seeing the movie, I’m stoked about listening to.
6.5 out of 10