At the heart of the advertisements for Barry Levinson’s new satire, Rock the Kasbah, is the manipulation of a true story: that of Setara Hussainzada, a female Afghan pop star who was condemned for singing pop music on television without her Hajib. This is a lie. Unlike most wrongful movie trailers, this isn’t a lie that stems from deceptive marketing. Setara’s stand-in, Salima (Leem Lubany) opens the film by sneaking out of her village, hiking to a distant cave, and plugging her television into a car battery so she can watch Afghan Hero, Afghanistan’s edition of American Idol. Once the credits finish rolling, Salima is not heard from again for well over 45 minutes. This is not her film.
Instead, this is Richie Lanz’s film, but this too is kind of a lie. Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) is a washed-up band manager resorted to conning terrible singers out of money for the promise of “representation.” Even his secretary, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) is a client of his with a modicum of talent, doing lousy cover songs in a sleazy bar. One bar night, Lanz meets a talent scout looking to book stars for various USO shows, having new talent open for “stars” like Demi Levato. This entire first act is a cynical edition of the series American Idol. First, Levinson offers up the terrible motel room audition segments where we laugh at and mock the clueless and talentless, then we see a mild talent offer up lousy cover songs while putting on a performance dictated by washed-up rich white dudes, and finally they get a lousy career opening for other, more famous, artists. All of this is marked by an exhausted performance by Bill Murray which feels as phoned in as his character is supposed to be.
But, really, American Idol is just Levinson’s lazy potshots. He honestly doesn’t care about mocking a pop cultural staple. His real target is the Afghanistan war. The war in Kabul is cynically bro-inspired. Introduced with one of the giants of bro-anthems, Kid Rock’s Bawitdaba, set against a backdrop of tanks and explosions, it’s only in Kabul that Levinson finally starts baring his teeth. No sooner than Richie and Ronnie land on the ground, thy’re introduced to a motley crew of awful war criminals. Just off the plane, a blase soldier informs them that the city is on lockdown, but they’re free to explore the hotel. At the hotel, Ronnie befriends the Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), a sleazy mercenary who will do anything for a buck. While Ronnie sleeps off a Mexican Quaalude, Richie befriends two war profiteers (Scott Caan and Danny McBride) who are selling ammo to the highest bidder, using the faintest gleam that they’re actually doing a good thing for everybody involved.
Levinson’s view of the Afghanistan conflict is defiantly anti-American. Richie, being the consummate con artist telling stories of the rich and famous – he spends time convincing Brian that he slept with Danielle Steele – is invited into all the areas that Afghan civilians cannot tread. Once connected with the war profiteers, he finds his way into the Vulcan, a glamorous nightcub with vaulted ceilings and deep pools where hookers seduce the rich and powerful. The hooker, in this case, is Merci (Kate Hudson), the Hooker-with-a-Heart-of-Gold-except-not-really who gives Richie a merci fuck that includes a Marilyn Monroe wig and scarf bondage.
When Richie befriends an American-pop-obsessed taxi driver, in a coincidence one step too convenient, he finds himself selling ammo to a faraway village existing as a hold out for poppy growth. There, Richie finally finds Salima singing in her cave, and proceeds to integrate himself as her manager, eschewing his usual 35% for 20%. And, suddenly, everybody wants in on the deal. When people hear Salima, they see money signs, and are cutting into the profits. Suddenly, Rock the Kasbah becomes a movie about a Great White Savior saving the Afghan population from its own sexism. In a war that’s sold as America trying to save Afghanistan from its religious extremist sects, that’s pretty biting.
As a heartfelt movie about an Afghan singer bucking the religious system, Rock the Kasbah is a complete failure. And, it intends to be. It sold itself as something that is patently false. Salima herself doesn’t get more than 3 lines of dialogue, and her character sings American pop songs (as opposed to Setara’s Afghan pop songs) by Cat Stevens. Just to nail the artificiality, Salima sings Cat Stevens’ Peace Train to her audience. This movie, about a woman trying to break through sexist barriers, fails the Bechdel test and is resorted to a Great White Savior plot. As a final twist of the knife, Salima is defined as a Pashtun villager, yet Setara, to whom the film is dedicated, was not a Pashtun. Instead, it was her rival in the same season, Lema Sehar, who made it one round farther than Setara, who was Pashtun. This whole section is a failure, as it intends to be.
As a satire on Barry Levinson’s favorite topic, American politics, it’s kind of genius. In a way, Rock the Kasbah is Wag the Dog‘s meta-sequel. Wag The Dog was about politics using the news media to create a fake war in a far-off country to hide a Presidential scandal. It was cynical, blistering, and a bit too close to home. Rock the Kasbah is a movie that falsely sells itself as one thing, but is about another, and about a war that is being sold as one thing but is actually about another. Somebody once told me that the best movies are the ones that don’t hit you in the theater, but hit you at home. And, truth be told, Rock the Kasbah only started hitting me around the 40 minute mark, and I wasn’t able to keep up. But, once I started peeling it apart, its shape became apparent. This isn’t about Satima or Setara. This isn’t even about Richie Lanz; he’s just a privilege white con man who can befriend anybody and sneak into the dark corners of American corruption. This is a movie about greed and warfare, and how they’re connecting in Afghanistan: a battlefield that even the most libby of liberals could agree was a good place on which we could focus our military. Once the lines are drawn, Rock the Kasbah becomes genius. The problem is clearing away the smoke screen…