The life, career, faith and activism of internationally renowned Senegalese singer Youssou N’dour forms the backbone of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s beautiful follow-up to her 2003 debut film, A Normal Life. Fans and newcomers to N’dour’s music will be equally enthralled by the finely observed, patiently wrought documentary, a bracing paean to a man whose gentle manner and guileless ability to reconcile seeming social, religious and political contradictions has taken on new relevance in a post-9/11 world. Savvy platforming from distributor Shadow can and should make this one of the top documentary earners of the year, assuming they can hold the screens into early awards season.
On a continent with no shortage of World Music superstars, Youssou N’dour is a living legend, an observant Muslim whose early embrace of both modernity and his mother’s Griot traditionalism forged a passion for a new style of African music that would become a potent force throughout Africa beginning in the 1980s. With seemingly unrestricted access to N’dour’s personal and professional life, Vasarhelyi opens a window on a world of remarkable richness and diversity with N’dour at its center.
While there is no disputing the elegant mellifluousness of his voice—which the film showcases extensively—it is his life and his devotion to his Muslim faith that increasingly takes center stage once the film moves past the obligatory biographical sketch. For N’dour, music and singing is a form of worship, but a worship borne of a uniquely Senegalese approach to Islam, a variation on mystical Sufism which, as the film progresses, creates certain regional conflicts with more conservative societies for whom pop music and piety represent an unacceptable mix.
The tragedy of 9/11 lurks in the background through much of the first section—until it moves to the forefront of N’dour’s own career, coinciding with the release of his acclaimed album “Egypt,” a testament to his faith and worldview. But the tentative steps he takes to move forward with the album soon turn to an aggressive effort to evangelize a vision of peace and brotherhood for all mankind. This effort meets with both regional apathy and conservative resistance, particularly in his native Senegal. But N’dour remains undaunted; an icon disinterested in his status as icon, he pursues a path consistent with the path that’s guided him his entire life and career.
If viewers are left with the impression that even the most remarkable artists enjoy only limited power to make a difference, it’s tempered by a sense that it may well be those who patronize the art and disseminate the message of the artist who possess the greatest power of all.
Cast: Youssou N’dour, Peter Gabriel and Bono
Director/Producer: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking.
Running time: 100 min.
Release date: June 12 NY, July 3 LA, July 10 ltd.