Considering the popularity and stature of her titular Senegalese celebrity, it’s a shame Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi didn’t do more with “Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love” than make what often feels like an elaborate DVD extra. Eventually, the helmer does delve into what it means to be a Muslim pop star in an increasingly fundamentalist world, and the pic’s overall thrust more complex than the kickoff would indicate. Very musical bio-doc will cut a swath across the festival circuit and specialty market before coming to rest on video shelves, bulging with even more of what it offers now.
It isn’t until about 50 minutes in — after pic has delivered the obligatory intro performance by Ndour, returned to his boyhood home of Dakar and made a cursory review of what Ramadan means to Islam — that the film gets really interesting, focusing on the making of Ndour’s controversial “Egypt,” an album of sacred songs celebrating his Muslim faith.
The concept creates problems: During a show in support of “Egypt,” Ndour and the orchestra, led by Kabou Gueye, play a club in Dublin — and refuse to perform until the patrons stop drinking. This is bleakly funny on one hand, but directly contradicts Ndour’s advocacy of cultural tolerance and one-worldism. Had the band been entirely from Senegal (where 94% of Muslims are of the more mystical, tolerant Sufi sect), this never would have happened, Ndour tells the camera. But there are Egyptian members in the band, and more viewpoints about Islam than there are songs in the star’s repertoire.
The reaction to “Egypt” is not limited to alienating the Irish (who actually seem quite amenable to the temporary drinking ban). In Senegal itself, music fans reject the work even as audiences and critics around the world are embracing it. When Ndour finally wins his long-awaited Grammy for the record, Senegal rejoices, but the intoxication of victory doesn’t preclude a global hangover of religious fundamentalism.
Vasarhelyi does a great job of keeping things moving, capturing some terrific performances with unobtrusive grace. “Egypt” itself has the ultimate chilling effect: When Ndour sings about love, or even Afro-empowerment and self-realization, he’s singing about things people worldwide can relate to and embrace. When he sings about the glories of a particular strain of religion, it pushes the non-Muslim audience away.
“Egypt” could have been a great story all by itself. So would Ndour, had he assumed his more customary musical persona. But Ndour the Sufi enthusiast isn’t someone who builds bridges, even within the Muslim world.