Rock the kasbah Bill Murray Afganistan
Javier Munoz

Is the world ready for a comedy about Kabul? Will audiences empathize with a broke Bill Murray bar-hopping amid the wartime chaos of Afghanistan?

Certainly “Rock the Kasbah,” being shopped at Cannes this week (it starts shooting June 2), contrasts sharply with some of the numb sex comedies playing in multiplexes this season. The gaggle of producers on “Kasbah” — a well-connected group — believe the movie represents a throwback to the edgy social comedies of the ’70s.

It was Tom Freston, the famously free spirit who built MTV, who inspired the film’s narrative. A frequent visitor to Kabul since 1972, Freston was surprised when his friends, including billionaire Steve Bing, Brian Grazer and Mitch Glazer, sparked to the idea of a movie. Bing promptly put up the money for a script.

The film, to be directed by Barry Levinson (“Good Morning, Vietnam”), will star Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Danny McBride and Zooey Deschanel, with a musical score featuring songs by Yussuf Islam when he was known as Cat Stevens.

“Kasbah” represents the sort of passion project we don’t see any more in corporate Hollywood. Its budget hovers in the mid-$20 million range. Bing, who’s also putting up some of the budget, has backed away from Hollywood in recent years to focus on real estate developments in Downtown Los Angeles and Las Vegas (he also contributed when Warren Beatty passed the hat last year to finance his decades-old Howard Hughes project, which is now shooting).

Bing’s co-producer, Freston, has never been directly involved in filmmaking (he was fired as CEO of Viacom in 2006 after a spat with Sumner Redstone). Grazer, to be sure, is enmeshed in a formidible cluster of mainstream TV and movie projects, which means this is an unusual step for him
as well.

Passion projects need multiple angels, and “Kasbah” won the support of Bill Block, who methodically patched together the funding from pre-sales and adventuresome investors like Jacob Pechenik, an Austin-based film financier and software developer. Block, one of the founding partners of Artisan Entertainment, has always been drawn to the offbeat, but his current company, QED, also is responsible for Brad Pitt’s upcoming World War II movie “Fury.”

So what is it about “Kasbah” that’s stirred this support? For Glazer, who worked with Murray back in the actor’s “Saturday Night Live” days, the Kabul setting has the aura of Saigon in the ’60s, its residents “dancing on the edge of a volcano.” Murray will play a washed up rock ’n’ roll manager who escorts his only remaining client on a USO tour, then discovers a brilliant young singer in Kabul who wins the Afghan version of “American Idol.” “Music unites people, irrespective of their tribes or persuasions,” Glazer says.

For Freston, Afghanistan has been a personal haven from the vagaries of the U.S. advertising and entertainment businesses. He founded a clothing company there in the ’70s after leaving Madison Avenue, and some 30 years later, after his Viacom stint, helped Saad Mohseni establish leading Afghan network Tolo TV.

“The Afghan people deserve better than they’ve gotten from the world,” Freston says. “Their humanity and sense of humor has survived decades of war.”

Clearly, “Kasbah” represents high hopes for a counterintuitive film whose success will depend on its excesses, as the title itself suggests. “Rock the Casbah” was a bizarre 1982 hit song with impenetrable lyrics from legendary British punk group the Clash. In fact, there is no casbah east of Algeria — and certainly not one in Afghanistan.

It’s doubtful whether anyone in Cannes will notice all that when the project us unveiled at the customary round of parties and press conferences. To its own particular beat, the place will already
be rockin’.

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