Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah is a shrill medley of misappropriations. An obvious source of research for the film, Havana Marking’s 2009 Afghan Star, per Slant’s Joseph Jon Lanthier, argued “that one region’s pop detritus is another’s ideological maturation.” The documentary, which profiles the cult of the eponymous Afghan television program, is compassionate, but is compromised by the dubious tension with which it depicts the trajectory of the first woman, post-Taliban, to compete in the singing competition.
The rise of a Pashtun singer, Salima (Leem Lubany), in Rock the Kasbah’s fictionalized account is similarly milked for maximum suspense, but the film is primarily sunk for orienting the fabulist story behind the Clash song that gives it its name as a celebration of a white man’s redemption: A nation’s optimistic trajectory is subservient to the shocks Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) must endure to get Kabul’s boogie men to let the raga drop.
Richie runs an agency out of a Van Nuys motel as washed up as his reputation, spin-doctoring terrible singers onto his client list under the amusingly cynical belief that, given Celine Dion and Niki Minaj’s successes, America doesn’t know talent. Early on, Murray’s deadpan belies his character’s delusion: Richie repeats that he discovered Madonna with such certitude that, after booking a karaoke gig for his client-cum-secretary (Zooey Deschanel), one believes he thinks it’s a good idea to take her to Afghanistan to sing for the troops. But one plane trip to Kabul later and Rock the Kasbah has already settled into a depressingly one-note groove as a culture-clashing circus act, the pinnacle of which is Deschanel’s would-be singer barfing up a storm at the sight of all the turban-wearing men in her midst.
For audiences, some relief comes from Deschanel disappearing into the night, at which point the film sketches a portrait of life in Kabul that feels deliberately abstract, as if understanding that this world almost resists representation. One moment Richie and a posse of shady Americans staying at his hotel are smoking weed and dodging bullets on the streets, and the next they’re hobnobbing with locals and foreigners alike inside a club that points to the nascent youth culture taking hold in the country.
But sometimes abstraction is just a first-draft problem, and most of the actors here seem only confused by the script’s elisions, from Kate Hudson as a prostitute with her own trailer on an army base, and who looks to profit from Salima’s appearance on Afghan Star, to Bruce Willis as a military contractor of sorts who blackmails Richie in one scene before inexplicably serving as his bodyguard for the rest of the film.
Without giving diligent expression to the allowances permitted by the Qur’an following the Taliban’s exit from Afghanistan, such as the novelty of something resembling freedom of speech, Rock the Kasbah gives the impression that the nation’s ideological rebirth would have been impossible without the gumption of a has-been music manager learning to shed his cynicism. Richie’s genuine belief in Salima’s talent, and his subsequent struggle to get her onto Afghan Star, despite the threat to both their lives, simply follows a dubiously sanguine path toward an inevitable outcome.
Salima, on the Afghan Star stage, tellingly sings a song by a musician who controversially converted to Islam, but her triumph is framed, predictably and sentimentally, only in relation to Richie’s redemption story. In the end, the only thing that distinguishes him from all the other cogs in the white-savior industrial complex who believe the world exists only to validate their privilege is that he possesses Bill Murray’s talent for perpetually cracking wise.