Rock the Kasbah: A satire about the chaos of war
From Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to MASH, Catch 22, Stripes and Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam, Hollywood has reserved some its most brilliant satire and biting humor for stories about the chaos of war. Into that time-honored tradition comes Rock the Kasbah, a hilariously skewed look at war-torn Afghanistan from the unlikely perspective of Richie Lanz, a failed showbiz huckster who finds his one last shot at success in the guise of a Pashtun girl whom he discovers in a remote village and coaches through the Afghan equivalent of American Idol.
The story began with the screenwriter Mitch Glazer’s determination, more than six years ago, to write a classic Bill Murray.
Glazer had worked with Murray on Scrooged, which he also wrote. The two had become close friends, and Glazer came up with the idea of Murray as the ultimate fish out of water: a washed-up rock manager who brings his last client to Kabul on a USO tour and immediately gets in over his head.
“It felt like a Hunter Thompson version of war,”says Glazer. “And my feeling was that, historically, using humor to deal with the lunacy of war is an honored tradition. And who better than Bill Murray to be your guide through the insanity of Kabul today?”
It was a conversation with Glazer’s friend Tom Freston about the expatriate world of Kabul that first sparked the idea of setting the film amidst the pandemonium and shocking contrasts of that war-ravaged city.
“He described this club,” Glazer recalls, “which we used a version of in our movie. It was 20-foot high sandbagged walls, razor wire, armed guards, a gun room where you go and you check your weapons, and then you go into this room behind a metal door, and it looks like something out of San Tropez.”
Glazer then devised the perfect set up, immediately plunging Murray’s character deep into this heart of darkness: “Richie… stumbles on the idea of doing a USO tour of army bases in Afghanistan at the height of the war. So he takes his one act [Ronnie, played by Zooey Deschanel], brings her to Kabul, and the sense of danger is palpable. Ronnie flips out and in the middle of the night, steals his money, his passport, his cash, and his plane ticket, and leaves him stranded.”
Desperate and with no way to get home, Richie ventures deeper into the thick of the Kabul expat underground, and ends up with a group of mercenaries in a village at the Pakistan border, selling ammunition to a group of tribal leaders.
“And he hears a voice, a woman’s voice,” Glazer says, “and it’s beautiful and haunting, and he follows it to this cave, and there’s this beautiful girl in a veil, a Pashtun girl, Salima, and he has this epiphany that this is the voice that he’s been looking for his whole life, and if he grabs her and gets her into the Afghan Star talent competition, that, between his rock ‘n’ roll intelligence and know-how, and her voice, they’ll win the competition. And he’ll be able to sell 50 million records.”
As implausible as that scenario may sound, Glazer was inspired by real events. “Afghan Star” is a real phenomenon and the most popular television show in the country. Ken Auletta described this pop culture event in a recent article in the New Yorker:
“Every Thursday night, an estimated one-third of Afghanistan’s thirty million citizens gather in front of television sets to watch. In rural places without electricity, people fill generators with gasoline or hook up their TVs to car batteries.”
There was even a Pashtun contestant on the show, who like Salima in Rock the Kasbah found herself at the center of conflict between ancient traditions and the modern media world.
Glazer puts it this way: “the idea that there was an American Idol-type show, where even in a country that’s being torn apart, they would join together to watch this TV show and vote, using their cell phones, for their favorite artists… That felt like something that audiences around the world could relate to.”
Glazer, who spent the early years of his writing career at Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Crawdaddy and many other magazines, had an intimate knowledge of characters just like him.
Richie, Glazer says, “was based on my years as a rock journalist. He’s kind of a faded rock manager from the Seventies, who had mid-level talent. But it couldn’t just be a comedy. It had to have heart and depth to it… Richie is driven by money. And then, through the course of the movie connecting with [Salima], and getting a sense of the world that she lives in, he winds up doing the right thing and discovers his better self.”
The script came together quickly, Glazer recalls. “I gave it to Billy on a Friday, and then he called me the next day and said ‘I’m in,’ and that was, six and a half years ago, and here we are on a rooftop in Marrakech.”
However the film was not an easy sell to studios. Glazer and producer Steve Bing brought the script to a number of potential financiers who couldn’t grasp the idea of a comedy set in Afghanistan. But the project eventually found a home at QED, the independent film production finance and sales outfit which was founded by Bill Block as a haven for commercial filmmakers working outside the usual studio conventions.
Working closely with the Glazer and Bing, Block packaged the film, sold foreign rights around the world and brought on Barry Levinson to direct it.
The rest of the cast quickly signed on. The casting of Salima was particularly important, and Levinson and his filmmakers found the quintessential actress for the part in Leem Lubany, a Palestinian actress who had starred in “Omar,” a Palestinian film that had been nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category.
In the film, Salima sings four songs by 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Yusuf Islam (better known as Cat Stevens).
Yusuf Islam initially refused to let the producers use his songs in the script, but Glazer re-approached him before the film began shooting and said “I think this movie accomplishes what you are trying to accomplish with your music. It’s a Trojan horse. The exterior of Rock the Kasbah is a big funny, Bill Murray comedy. But inside of that, is a deeper message of tolerance and those universal qualities that all people share: love of their family, music, and humor. And he wrote me back an e-mail, saying, ‘Fine, take the songs.”
Once Murray began filming, he immediately grasped that the character of Richie, and the situation he finds himself in, afforded him tremendous comic possibilities. As the actor puts it, “This movie I thought was going to be a little bit more serious than it is because it has some serious tones but… this movie is going to be crazily, insanely funny…I had no idea how rife with comic opportunities the whole script was.”
It’s a sentiment that Levinson echoes: “It is a comedy but it’s not a slapstick comedy. It needs credibility to it. It needs a sense of reality to it.”
For Levinson, the casting was a crucial part of establishing that level of verisimilitude. “We have Pashtun actors playing Pashtun. They can speak the language, and those who are speaking, you know, Dari, which is more in Kabul, and you’re trying to create a reality of which you put the Bill Murray character into. So it feels credible. So that the humor comes from that sense of reality to the piece.”
Levinson adds: “Everything I have seen in terms of Afghanistan is always war. They’re always war movies, in one way or another. And what I really was fascinated by was the simple humanity of it. You know, Bill Murray is a, is a rock manager… He loses his passport and his money and without going into all the details of it, suddenly he’s in another world and he navigates his way through it.”
Murray’s guide and muse through this underworld is Mercy, a prostitute in Kabul who is looking for own way out, played by Kate Hudson. “I think what Mercy really sees when she first hears [Salima’s] voice is just dollar signs,” Hudson says. “And as the story progresses, she really gets invested in this young girl’s plight to do what she really loves and going against all of the odds and following her passion and her dream. And I think Mercy really gets inspired by it.”
Working with Murray for the first time, Hudson says, was “like a master class of comedy. Watching him find his beats or find the humor in something… the thing about Bill is that he just never really misses. He tries one thing and it’s funny. He tries another thing and it’s funny.”
Levinson’s 1987 wartime comedy, “Good Morning Vietnam,” didn’t shy away from the horrors of war, but also managed to introduce a level of madcap comedy into those serious themes and won Robin Williams a Golden Globe.
“Comedy,” Levinson says, “if it’s handled correctly, is a great way to look into a lot of the problems we have in the world. If you go back to the ‘60s when we talked about nuclear proliferation, there were two movies made at that time [which told the] same exact story. One was Failsafe and the other was Dr. Strangelove. And Strangelove’s approach to it is the one that stays with us.”