YOUSSOU N’DOUR – Everyone is bringing love

Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary YOUSSOU N’DOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE was released on DVD recently, and the film opens widely today in France. I had a chance to sit down and screen this hit doc on the Senegalese mega-star, although admittedly I was longing for a big theatre with big speakers, in order to revel in the singular sound of Youssou’s voice.

Of course I’m a dumb American and all I can do since I saw the film is sing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” over and over and over in my head, thinking of Youssou’s great back up riff. (If you’re over 30, it’ll come to you – you know, right after one of the many “the light and heat’s” – Youssou comes in strong – and I’m transported instantly to my small liberal arts college self, blasting it out my dorm room window.) Vasarhelyi’s film is rich, rich, rich – and as is usually the case, also has problems. But who doesn’t these days, really?

The film is structured in two parts: It first investigates N’Dour’s roots as well as inspirations, giving us concerts, family, and home. In the second part, we experience reflection on the reception of his album EGYPT, which was controversial in Senegal due to its religious content (how dare a pop star sing so ‘casually’ about Islam?) but was a hit abroad. We don’t get to actually experience the controversy other than through interview, but we do travel the Western world as N’Dour performs the album throughout Europe.

The criticism of the film amounts to a claim that Vasarhelyi dared not fully explore the controversy, and avoids ‘the other side,’ prompting some reviewers to claim she simply brought too much love and made a mere PR piece. In my view, the narrative structure is indeed simplified, as the film implies that the controversy regarding the portrayal of Islam in popular culture is more or less resolved once the film wins a Grammy in the States.

But that doesn’t mean the structure isn’t effective – and as I grasped through my film-climax weepies that this was certainly not the whole story, I also appreciated the narrative’s climb to an ultimate celebration of this man and his music. It’s moving – his voice, his outlook, his gentle, beautiful demeanor. (He also has amazing clothing, Western and Senegalese.)

I wished Vasarhelyi would have simply and efficiently acknowledged the complexities that would lead an individual to reject the material, or at least be ambivalent toward it, so we can understand the humanity of not only this great artist, but also of a population fiercely protective of and influenced by its religion. Where was the upset Senegalese music fan in this doc, who is not what one might term an ‘extremist’? Again, it would not have taken much – and given the proliferation of talking heads, would not have upset the tone.

That said, it’s still gorgeous, and introduces us to a man who honors tradition, loves his country, loves Islam, loves music, and is committed to change. That’s a portrayal we certainly need — and as Vasarhelyi herself has articulated, she simply wanted to make a film set in Africa that was not about devastation. Documentary as a whole could take a cue here; I’m grateful for her lovely contribution. See it!

The trailer is here: