Rock the Kasbah takes many wrong turns

by Bob Brown
Posted 10/27/15, 03:35 pm

It seems nobody in Rock the Kasbah—not the lead character, not even the director—knows where he’s going or where he’ll end up. With the right company, though, a road trip to nowhere can be kind of fun. This one isn’t.

Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) is a washed-up talent agent from Van Nuys, Calif. He can’t pass up the opportunity for a yearlong gig with the USO in Afghanistan. Leaving behind his young daughter and two months of overdue child support payments, Richie arrives in Kandahar with Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), a singer he represents. A bomb explodes near their vehicle as they drive to the hotel. It’s too much for Ronnie. On their first day in Afghanistan, she steals Richie’s passport and money and hightails it out of the country.

Richie is sitting out in the desert one night, contemplating his predicament, when he stumbles upon a young Pashtun woman, Salima (Leem Lubany), who’s singing and playing guitar in a cave. Recognizing her talent, Richie encourages her to share her music. He teams up with an arms merchant, Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), and a prostitute, Merci (Kate Hudson), to get Salima an appearance on the popular (and real) television show Afghan Star, the country’s equivalent to American Idol.

Salima dreams of becoming Afghan Star’s first female contestant, but she lives in a culture that views public musical performances as unfitting for women. She and her motley crew of agents face scorn from Salima’s family and death threats from militants. She competes on television, but she keeps her head covered and does not sway suggestively. Her captivating renditions of “Wild World” and “Peace Train” win over the studio audience and many of her fellow Afghans who stop to watch her perform on storefront televisions.

Murray fans will take another spin with a character who sees a rosy world through sad, puppy dog eyes. An unenergetic Willis, however, gives the film a flat tire. Like Ronnie, it appears he knows he’s in the vicinity of a bomb.

Director Barry Levinson seems to laud just about everyone except the movie’s true heroine, Salima. While the end credits note the film is dedicated to the actual first female Afghan Star contestant, Kasbah invests little in Salima’s life and struggles. She sings a couple of songs but, for the most part, rides backseat to Hudson and Murray.

Kasbah (rated R for language, some drug use, and brief violence) bathes Merci’s spunky resourcefulness in a glamorous light, but brushes aside the troublesome aspects of her business. Near the film’s finale, the storyteller gives an elbow to the viewer’s ribcage pointing out Richie is still the good guy. Fine, if you accept the prospect that a deadbeat dad can change the world.

Bob Brown

Bob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course.

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