(director/writer: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; cinematographers: Nick Doob/JoJo Pennebaker/Scott Duncan/Hugo Berkeley; editors: Jonathan Oppenheim/Fernando Villena; music: James Newton Howard and Martin Davich; Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Shadow Distribution; 2008-France-in French and English, with English subtitles)

“Inspirational concert film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“A Normal Life”) directs this inspirational concert film on the internationally acclaimed Grammy-award singer Youssou N’dour, a Sengalese native who met controversy when he upset the Sufi Islamic religious folks back home in his poor West African country by releasing in 2004 a religious musical album called Egypt, paying homage to the great religious leaders of his Sufi faith, the Egyptian religious singers such as the popular Umm Kutchur he heard as a child on his father’s radio and with the chance to preach to the world about brotherhood and tolerance being the part of Islam that the world in recent times has not seen. The popular African musician created the album before 9/11 but did not release it until the post-9/11 period, with the intention to present a positive image of the peaceful side of Islam to the Western world.

The film chronicles the singer’s humble beginnings in the capital city of Dakar, the influence of his griot singing family, especially his elderly granny on his mother’s side, and his climb up the ladder of success as a social activist singer with a “voice of liquid gold.” It follows him and his band around for two years to concerts in London, Paris, Fez, Morocco, the holy city in Senegal of Touba and finally to Carnegie Hall in NYC.

In 2007, Time magazine named Youssou, for what it’s worth, one of the world’s 100 most influential people. The good family guy is a devout Muslim preaching that music is a way to communicate with God. The boundary-pushing album was well-received abroad, but in his native country it hurt him that it was not accepted by most of the public and was denounced as blasphemy by the natives of Senegal.

The pat documentary does not probe further than give us the sincere singer’s love for Islam, family, and Africa, which comes across suspiciously like a lengthy PR release. Youssou is glorified here as an unofficial ambassador for Islam and Africa, and holds out the hope that his inspirational music can make the world a better place for all people.

The pic is lovely to look at, the spiritual singer is easy to like and the singing is strong, but it’s a rather superficial profile of the African icon–it tells us precious little about him as a person, as everything comes across as if scripted by someone star-struck and dewy-eyed.