Bill Murray Takes the Show on the Road… to Afghanistan

Director: BARRY LEVINSON/2015

Director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Wag the Dog, The Natural) takes us on a trip with Bill Murray (Ghostbusters, St. Vincent, Moonrise Kingdom) to Afghanistan with a mix of music, comedy, and a post-U.S. invasion politic dominating the country.  Murray is Richie Lanz, a down-and-out rock and roll manager who is now operating out of a motel in Van Nyus, California with his assistant Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel (Elf, 500 Days of Summer, Almost Famous) after an apparent fall from grace when he hobnobbed with the giants of rock music. Ronnie, who longs to perform music that she has written instead of the bad karaoke-based cover tunes she is forced to sing by Lanz, continues to stick with Lanz despite seeing zero payoffs in her future.

When a drunken agent who books U.S.O. tours for the military offers to bring Ronnie to Afghanistan to sing for the troops after hearing her belt out Meredith Brooks 1997 hit “Bitch”, in which he was mostly drunk why listening to her sing, Lanz jumps at the chance.  Looking to score some cash, while in the middle of this dry patch in his professional life, Lanz begins using his ability to smooze others to try to launch Ronnie in the most unfriendly of environments….Kabul, Afghanistan.

Kabul is depicted as a wild west type of town following the fall of the Taliban and in the wake of several turf wars playing out amongst local warlords and the U.S. military. There are also various weapons contractors like the hilarious Jake (Scott Caan-Oceans Trilogy, Hawaii Five-O) and Nick (Danny McBride-Aloha, This is the End).  Ronnie doesn’t take it well and takes off before her first gig, convincing mercenary Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis-Die Hard, Sixth Sense) to get her on a flight to Dubai, leaving Richie Lanz stranded and in need of his passport and cash.

The rest of film is simply Levinson turning on the camera and letting Bill Murray go on tour across Afghanistan trying to find a way out of town while doing his typical shtick in this complicated political culture.  Kate Hudson (Almost Famous, Skeleton Key) gets tangled up in his life along with a disco-loving cab driver named Riza (Arian Moayed-Rosewater).

Lanz’ journey is a typical arc for Murray who oozes “slime ball ” characters so effortlessly, only to see them find redemption in the end.  Whether this is in slapstick fashion of his early days like in Stripes, to his better known roles in Groundhog Day, and even the recent St. Vincent, Murray is simply so good at being himself in these roles, that it really doesn’t matter if he is singing a similar tune that we have all heard before. He is still Bill Murray!

Eventually, the personal journey of Richie Lanz dove-tails into an actual event involving the first female singer to appear in Afghanistan on television on the hit program Afghan Star, patterned after our own American Idol.

This was quite scandalous when it happened in real life, in which the singer received death threats that forced her into exile in Germany.  But here, in Rock the Kasbah, it provides Lanz the perfect moment to seek his redemption by championing the cause of the unlikely singer Salima (Leem Lubany-Omar) whom he discovers belting out Cat Stevens songs in a cave outside a small village he finds himself in after agreeing to do one weapons delivery for Nick and Jake in order to earn some fast cash.

Rock the Kasbah has a very strong soundtrack that cuts across several musical landscapes.  The obvious headliner of the soundtrack is Yusuf/Cat Stevens whose songs such as “Trouble”, “Wild World”, and “Peace Train” are used to great affect to address the war-politic going on throughout the country as well as obvious tension between East and West, Muslim vs. non-Muslim, etc.  Being a Western Muslim, as the film refers to the singer, it gives the former Cat Stevens and his songs the ability to perhaps be used to bridge some of the divides in this microcosm I described.

In fact, Levinson was able to receive the blessing of the singer/songwriter for the use of his songs because of the respect the film shows to the religion and culture of Islam, and the Afghan people, who are the backdrop to the larger spiritual journey of Lanz as he seeks his redemption, despite being in a comedy. This and the healing reconciliation that the film, and his songs, aims for seemed to be a perfect marriage.

Rock the Kasbah fluctuates between being a sweet-natured comedy, and a much darker one given the fact that it contains very real and serious subject matter involving war, politics, religion, and culture.  Interestingly enough, it is not a war film, a political film, a religious film, nor is it a film about a superior culture over another.  The laughs and the journey is squarely on the shoulders of Bill Murray’s portrayal of Richie Lanz, and all of the other simply exists, as it does in the real world, as a means for one man’s journey towards personal growth and enlightenment.

Bruce Willis and Murray have good chemistry together, as they showed previously in Moonrise Kingdom, as does Kate Hudson and Murray. Kate takes the next logical step of her storied “Penny Lane” character from Almost Famous by taking her “groupie” status to Afghanistan to earn retirement money as a prostitute in a culture that supposedly forbids it.  With her as a “groupie” of sorts, it compliments Murray’s “rock and roll manager” persona perfectly, even if the tales he tells of Stevie Nicks head butting him at a Fleetwood Mac concert on the Rumors tour, or him “discovering” Madonna as she was singing outside a burger joint may be just as hollow as the industry hype he throws down as he goes for the big deals he is working for his clients.

Levinson and Murray have a good film on their hands in Rock the Kasbah, but one that might have trouble finding a place to land at the box office as it seems to occupy the territory between all the typical genres that marketing executives will try to sell it as, especially as evidenced in the trailer.  The trouble is that it doesn’t fit any particular mold. But if you appreciate Bill Murray and the kind of character he has become so good at portraying over the years, coupled with a great soundtrack, and a film that does try to paint a very broken world as fixable, like Cat Stevens has sung about, then Rock the Kasbah might just work for you.  If not, then this will fail big.  Like the subject matter itself, there is no real middle ground when seeking redemption… it’s all or nothing.