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Youssou N'dour: I Bring What I Love
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by Jay Seaver

"... and I kind of like what it brings"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: Youssou Ndour is the biggest pop star in Africa; he is also a devout Sufi Muslim. Which, apparently, is fine as long as those two qualities don't intermingle as they did on his album "Egypt", a disc full of devotional songs that was tremendously well-received internationally but led to criticism in his native Senegal. "I Bring What I Love" follows him as he tours Europe to packed audiences but fights censorship and derision at home.

We start out with a little background on Ndour, learning how music was in his blood - his grandmother was a griot, a revered musical storyteller. Youssou's mother married outside that caste, and Youssou spent much of his childhood living with his grandmother in order to learn from her. Egypt came about in response to an interview where he was asked about not singing during Ramadan; though he felt all music was a celebration of God's greatness, he was inspired to record an album that was explicitly spiritual. The release of Egypt was delayed after the September 11th terrorist attacks, but when it finally came out, it did so to nearly universal acclaim - the exception being in Ndour's native Senegal.

I suspect that I Bring What I Love may not bring a great deal of new information to Ndour's fans, although it does offer up enough interesting nuggets to interest the rest of us. Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi does a nice job of dividing the film's time between biographical material, examination of the controversy around Egypt, and filling us in on Sufi/Senegalese culture and history. There's plenty of performance material from the world tour, serving as good punctuation between sections without feeling too obviously linked thematically.

Youssou Ndour comes across as pretty cool for an international celebrity; he advocates for good causes, seems to respect his critics even when saying their worries are unfounded, and shrugs off unfortunate turns of events - like having to cancel a show because the Egyptian musicians touring with him won't play in a venue where alcohol is being served - without losing his temper. It makes him a great tour guide as the camera follows him across three continents, from a Congressional hearing in Washington to concert halls across Europe and the massive mosque at Touba.

The section of the movie in Touba is perhaps the movie's best, as we learn some about what distinguishes the Sufi beliefs from other Islamic sects. It's where we see everything pull together the best, as the masses of people there are clearly feeling something different than the enthusiastic crowds at the European concerts. It's exceptionally photographed, both in terms of giving us high-quality images of something beautiful and showing us how it fits into Senegalese culture; Vasarhelyi and her photographers are able to give us shots that simultaneously convey the building's great size and how many people on pilgrimages are waiting to enter. We even sort of understand the thoughts of those objecting to Ndour bringing religion into his music, as they worry about half-naked girls cavorting around this place when he plans to shoot a music video there.

Even though Ndour isn't planning anything like that, it does highlight the film's main shortcoming: Some of what we're being told could use a little more context. We get only the briefest glimpse of Ndour's non-Egypt music as the film begins, and when the cleric makes that comment, I found myself wondering if that was a reasonable fear on their part. Just how great a departure was this album? The end, where the album is embraced in Senegal after it wins a Grammy Award, also opens up an intriguing can of worms that I wanted to know more about - why does an American award seem to sway public opinion in this situation? I'm not looking for opposition viewpoints, just a bit more detail on the cultural environment in which Youssou Ndour was operating.

Even without them, "Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love" is a very enjoyable music doc. After all, I really can't be too disappointed if, at the end of two hours, I've heard some good music and learned something new.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17791&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/16/09 22:25:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Santa Cruz Film Festival For more in the 2009 Santa Cruz Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/17/08 denny gave real insights into this great musican and his music 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  12-Jun-2009 (NR)
  DVD: 06-Apr-2010

UK
  N/A

Australia
  12-Jun-2009
  DVD: 06-Apr-2010


Directed by
  Chai Vasarhelyi

Written by
  (documentary)

Cast
  (documentary)



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