Rock the Kasbah (2015)

Rock the Kasbah (2015)
  • Time: 100 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Music
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Cast: Bruce Willis, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Murray, Kate Hudson, Scott Caan, Leem Lubany


A down-on-his-luck music manager discovers a teenage girl with an extraordinary voice while on a music tour in Afghanistan and takes her to Kabul to compete on the popular television show, Afghan Star.


  • If you haven’t heard by now, the flick I’m about to review is currently bombing heavy at the box office. Case in point: Just yesterday, I happened to be the only audience member to attend a midday screening. Score one for the nation’s critics who managed to keep consumers away in droves (everyone wants to see The Martian for the umpteenth time, who knew).

    Anyway, QED International’s Rock the Kasbah feels a little unfinished. It also gives off the whiff of a few scenes being left on the cutting room floor. There are some undeveloped characters, recognizable actors/actresses that don’t quite submit (Scott Caan, Danny McBride, Taylor Kinney, and Zooey Deschanel are on and off the screen faster than a freight train), and a closing credits sequence that actually makes Bill Murray look unfunny (I didn’t think that was possible). Darn it though if this fall declaration isn’t mildly entertaining not to mention wholly original. As a fan of Barry Levinson, I think his direction and pacing here are more than adequate. And “Kasbah” with what looks like the most accurate of locales (Afghanistan appeared genuine to me), has been getting an unfair ribbing from anyone who’s ever written a column. Hey I’m not preaching this to be four star stuff but heck, it’s better than say Ishtar (ha ha).

    Rumored to initially have the problematic Shia Labeouf as one of its costars and featuring a soundtrack full of 70’s classics as well as covers of 70’s classics, Rock the Kasbah is a personality-driven, fish out of water story. Tom Selleck had Mr. Baseball back in 1992, Michelle Pfeiffer had Dangerous Minds back in 95′, Paul Hogan had “Crocodile” Dundee back some thirty years ago, and now lead Bill Murray gets his Shareef on in 2015. He plays Richie Lanz, a once prominent rock manager now living in a seedy, Van Nuys hotel. He used to work with legends like Stevie Nicks and John Mellencamp. Now he’s almost broke, owing back child support to his young daughter who he has to talk to through a window (ouch). You see Lanz has one client left, a whiny female singer named Ronnie (played by Zooey Deschanel). Together on a tip from a drunken bar patron, they travel to Kabul, Afghanistan to partake in a famed, USO tour. As they get settled in some 14,000 miles away from home, Ronnie gets cold feet, steals Richie’s passport (and wallet), and flies back leaving him all alone with no identification. Richie’s solution: Wait two weeks for a new passport, find a way to raise some cash (illegally), and discover a new singer to appear on Afghanistan’s version of TV’s American Idol (an actual show called Afghan Star). Murray quips and cops with one-liners and a capella versions of Deep Purple (“Smoke on the water, A fire in the sky”). He’s in every frame with do-rag in tote.

    All in all, “Kasbah’s” main fallout from getting anyone to see it, might be in its target audience comprised of only hardcore Bill Murray fans (I’m one of them). Then there’s the fact that its title is pretty darn conventional (two other movies via the past three years are named Rock the Kasbah. Plus, there’s that 1982 ditty by The Clash you know). Finally, the point in this condensed 100-minute exercise, is cantankerously mute. The proceedings feel a little pasted together (the notion of a delayed release shows) with Levinson letting things drift from drama to road comedy then back to drama. He does it with some real, mild strokes.

    As for Murray, he plays Lanz not entirely for laughs. He doesn’t push this character as much as you might think (don’t let the trailer fool you). In hindsight, he’s more dry and unconcerned than anything else. This is his one-man show with a sandy, South Asia backdrop to boot. Other big time movie stars help him contribute (Kate Hudson as a sultry, Kabul prostitute and Bruce Willis as a gun-toting mercenary) but come on, they’re just a blimp on his radar. Bottom line: Wilmette’s favorite son has this uncanny ability to carry a film good or bad. As Joe Strummer belts (in the actual song, “Rock the Kasbah”), “the king called up his jet fighters, he said you better earn your pay”, well everyone involved (the filmmakers, the cast, and especially its main trouper) at least gets a slight raise. My rating: 2 and a half stars.

    Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

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  • An American lost in Afghanistan. No money. No passport. For most, that man is a goner. But in the midst of his life falling apart, he witnesses the voice of a woman singing secretly in a cave (and in English for that matter!). With that, he decides to be her manager, risking his life and hers by having her break traditional customs and sing before a live broadcasting contestant show. It sounds like something that could only be inspired by a true story (which it is), and the makings of great Oscar bait. Bill Murray and writer Mitch Glazer’s decided to take a different approach, by going with this story as a comedy rather than just your regular fall season bio-drama flick.

    Richie Lanz is a music manager that is as scum as you might expect any L.A. producer and manager to be. According to him, he has worked with the likes of Madonna, while also having Jimmy Hendrix play the Star Spangled Banner because he asked him to. Only now, he’s down on his luck (and very full of himself), but gladly takes personal checks from wannabe stars in order to stay afloat, with one artist clinging on to him for hopes of stardom. After drunkenly being convinced to take her on a tour in Afghanistan , Lanz and his star singer (played by Zooey Deschanel), head there, only to have his singer run off with his passport and money.

    “What about the show” Richie shrieks, as his tour is then cancelled with his the news of his star becoming a runaway. The show did go on, but not in the way one would have expected.

    Bill Murray provides chuckles along the way, but nowhere near as close as what his resume proclaims it should. Most of the funny-ish scenes are situational, like hearing someone sing Maroon 5’s “She Will be Loved” horribly, or seeing Murray run out of an exploded vehicle in shock. Sure, watching that is amusing, but what of the material? You can have talent, but you need writers to help push the talent to new areas of absurdity, especially if they are comedic actors.
    Zooey Deschanel’s character also could have been completely left out of the script, as some other form of Deus Ex Machina moment could have helped to bring Richie to the Middle East. Kate Hudson surprisingly was enjoyable to walk, but was not as humorous of a busy hooker as one would expect (Vivian Ward set the bar high for escorts). But her scenes in the film proved to be some of the best ones.

    You would expect a better soundtrack than the typical 1980s rock music we are lazily given. We get it, he’s a music manager, so of course, Richie would sing and mention his favorite tunes. But in an entirely new location, with no friends to start his journey but a taxi driver that knows English, how can it be possible that we don’t hear the native music?

    It is unfortunate that a rich premise was wasted on a dull comedy that couldn’t pull more than a couple of chuckles. The second half of the movie deals with women’s rights, the tension in Afghanistan, along with cultural diffusion and relativism, but is washed down with uninspiring negotiations, with a Bill Murray that left his charm back in Lost in Translation. Rock the Kasbah shows us that it is sometimes ok to disobey and follow a dream you believe, even if you know most won’t agree with. The Clash song of the same name does more justice of this meaning than the movie, as it tries to convey the message with indirect humor, which came along instead as direct mush. Let’s hope that this Christmas will prove to be very Murray for Bill, with a Netflix film that he apparently placed all his comedic wit in.

  • Rock the Kasbah. That three word phrase can mean different things to different people, depending on their personal pop culture awareness and even where they were born. The word Kasbah, which is sometimes spelled with a “c” and sometimes with a “q”, traditionally refers to a fortress or a fortified portion of a Muslim city, but can also mean an older section of such a city. Kasbahs are mainly found in North Africa and, apparently, someone named Shareef doesn’t like it when you rock a casbah. That’s what “The Clash” told us in their 1982 hit song “Rock the Casbah”. Those words (with that “c”-spelling) have also been used as the title of a 2013 French-Moroccan dramatic film and another from Israel in 2012. (There was also an American musical in 1948 that simply used the one-word title: “Casbah”.) “Rock the Casbah” also happens to be the name of an annual star-studded L.A. party hosted by Virgin Airlines CEO, Sir Richard Branson, and his mother, Eve, to raise money for charitable work in… North Africa. So, now that we’ve come full circle, it’s time to add another casbah/kasbah/qasbah reference to the list – the 2015 Bill Murray comedy “Rock the Kasbah” (R, 1:40), which takes place in… Afghanistan.

    Murray plays Richie Lanz, a washed-up Southern California music promoter, overflowing with stories of his relationships with famous rock musicians, but short on recent success. He’s even desperate enough to commit cover singer Ronnie Smiler (Zooey Deschanel), the only real client he has left, to a USO tour of American military bases in Afghanistan. Richie literally doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. When reality sets in, Ronnie leaves the country, along with Richie’s money and his passport. With no cash, no identification and a two-week wait for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to get him a new passport, he needs other American civilians living in Afghanistan to help him survive until he can get out.

    The expats whom Richie meets are quite the colorful cast of characters. Popular local American-born prostitute, Merci (Kate Hudson), helps Richie out… in a number of different ways. (She pronounces her name “Mercy” and is a worldly wise, but sexy-spiritual character.) Then, there’s Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), who is a cross between a mercenary and a very well-armed security guard for hire. Danny McBride and Scott Caan are ammo suppliers, named Nick and Jake, who are making a financial killing, while helping anyone with the money make some literal ones. Richie also gets some much-needed transportation services, street knowledge, cultural education and translation services (not to mention friendship and good advice) from a kind, young Disco-loving local cab driver named Riza (Arian Moayed).

    Since he has nowhere to go and nothing to do at the moment, Nick and Jake literally toss Richie a pile of cash to make an ammo delivery to local tribal chief Tariq Khan (Fahim Fazli). Brian is there for security, Riza to translate and Richie for his deal-brokering experience. Richie and Riza end up spending the night in the chief’s home. Late at night, while outside taking care of some personal business, Richie hears the beautiful voice of Traiq’s daughter Salima (Leem Lubany) singing in the distance. She’s inside a cave because women in her culture are not permitted to sing in public. Richie entering the cave scares her off, but the next morning, she hears Richie praising her voice while talking to her father, and she stows away in the trunk of Riza’s taxi as he drives Richie back to Kabul. Richie is so enchanted by Salima’s singing voice – and the opportunity to manage her – that he uses all his charm and skills to try to get her on the very popular reality TV show “Afghan Star”, which is the local equivalent of “American Idol”. Performing is Salima’s dream and she also sees it as a way to praise Allah, but Allah’s other followers in the area see things differently. By helping Salima, Richie and Riza have endangered their lives and hers – and given an opening to a rival leader who thinks Tariq is too soft and would like to replace him as chief.

    “Rock the Kasbah” is inspired by the true story of a young female singer in Afghanistan… but it’s also a Bill Murray comedy. The advertising tries to… bill this movie as a return to comedic form for Murray. There’s definitely some of that smarmy, irreverent humor that made Murray famous in the early 1980s, but not as much as you might think based on the trailers. The film is an entertaining mix of Murray-esque comedic situations, war-time satire, social commentary and old Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam songs. The main characters are generally likable, while the situations are only pseudo-realistic, but the movie is often charming and amusing, if not laugh-out-loud funny. The main problem with the film is that the script, directing and performances soft pedal both the comedy and the drama in an attempt to have it both ways. “Rock the Kasbah” may be worth a look, but don’t expect it to rock your world. “B”

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