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Case Number 18674: Small Claims Court

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Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love

Oscilloscope // 2008 // 102 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // April 6th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Victor Valdivia doesn't bring what he loves, but he does carry around what he hates.

The Charge

Bring your faith. Bring your doubt. Bring your voice. Bring your love.

The Case

I Bring What I Love is a sloppy and meandering documentary. If it were about any non-musical topic, it would be easy to dismiss. Youssou N'Dour's music, however, is so beautiful that when the film gets its act together and shows him singing, all is forgiven. N'Dour's music here is so enthralling, in fact, that you may find it easy to overlook the film's many flaws. Nonetheless, even N'Dour's most devout fans may find it to be a bit of a slog at times.

I Bring What I Love chronicles, haphazardly, the most difficult time in N'Dour's career. The film briefly describes how N'Dour has been recording music in his native Senegal since 1976 and has enjoyed some mainstream worldwide success. He first broke through in the Western world in 1986 when he sang alongside Peter Gabriel on the hit "In Your Eyes" and scored a multiplatinum smash in Europe in 1994 when he sang the duet "Seven Seconds" with Neneh Cherry. That success made him Senegal's most beloved son.

The film begins with him traveling through the city as a hero. It then describes how he embarked on the biggest risk of his career in 2001, when he began working on an album that would use secular music to sing about his Muslim faith. The album would take on an added urgency after the September 11 attacks, and he decided to incorporate Arabic musicians and more explicitly devout lyrics. The resulting album, Egypt, was finally released in 2004 and was a huge hit in Europe and the United States. In his home country of Senegal, however, it caused a ferocious backlash that was unlike anything N'Dour had ever endured. Stores refused to sell the album and many clerics attacked him as a blasphemer and apostate, even demanding that he be banned from attending his pilgrimage to the city of Touba, Senegal's most sacred city to Sufi Muslims like N'Dour. As N'Dour goes from being his country's most revered citizen to one of its most reviled, he begins to wonder what he can do to explain his intentions to his fans.

That's the story that I Bring What I Love is meant to tell. At least, it would have, if director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi didn't feel the need to pad the film out with all sorts of meandering diversions that make it something of a chore. There are the obligatory scenes showing N'Dour being a loving father and son to his family. These are all nice and do serve to humanize N'Dour, but Vasarhelyi piles on about twice as many as necessary, long after we've already gotten the point. There's a particularly distasteful scene that will offend the squeamish in which N'Dour helps slaughter a sheep for a family feast. Is there a point to it? Not really, but it does add to the running time. By contrast, Vasarhelyi shortchanges some rather important issues that are at the heart of the story she's supposed to be telling. In particular, the film never really makes clear what the clerics' objections to Egypt actually are. Is it that N'Dour blended secular music with spiritual lyrics? Is N'Dour, a secular singer, not authorized to sing religious material? Does his friendship with so many Western singers like Gabriel and Bono make him seem too Westernized for the clerics' taste? The film doesn't say. Instead, the criticisms are brushed aside in brief flashes of newspaper headlines in Senegal that only give a superficial view of the controversy. The result is a film that's simultaneously too long yet not detailed enough. Vasarhelyi could have either chopped out at least 10 minutes to make a breezier and lighter film, or could have gone into further depth with the controversial issues. This half-hearted compromise ends up deeply unsatisfying.

At least I Bring What I Love does work on one level: musically. The film does have plenty of N'Dour singing and that makes it worth putting up with Vasarhelyi's indulgences. There are several of N'Dour's classic songs such as "New Africa" and "Yama" in brand-new live versions that will thrill fans and serve as excellent introductions to newcomers. The Egypt material, though, is the most fascinating. The mixture of Arabic musicians and instruments with N'Dour's traditional Afro-pop and R&B arrangements is intoxicating—it truly is a whole new sound that N'Dour makes his own. The arrangements by producer Fathy Salama are superb and the musicians in the orchestra are all skilled musicians whose love of music is infectious. Indeed, one of the film's best moments occurs when various musicians and N'Dour strike up an impromptu jam in the middle of a hotel lobby. Those scenes of N'Dour and his musicians in the studio and on tour are easily the best in the film. Vasarhelyi should have spent more of the film on them, since her attempts at dealing with non-musical issues don't really work so well.

The DVD is a little light on extras, considering the problems in the film. There are some wonderful musical performances that probably should have been in the film. In addition to some footage of N'Dour and the orchestra in rehearsals, the DVD includes a live performance of N'Dour's 2000 song "Birima," N'Dour in the studio recording a new song named "Yonnent," and N'Dour covering "Ansak," a song recorded by '50s Egyptian singer Umm Kuthum, one of N'Dour's childhood favorites. Also included are brief scenes of N'Dour visiting rap star Wyclef Jean in New York and posing for a photo shoot. These are both fairly brief and don't really add much to the package. Why not discuss the controversy over Egypt in more detail and how N'Dour sought to defuse it? How about an interview with Vasarhelyi in which she explains her choices? It's not that the extras are bad, but since viewers will be left with too many unanswered question at the end of the film, they seem rather meager.

Technically, the DVD is first-rate. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is stellar, full of vibrant colors and sharp images. The 5.1 surround mix is even better, showing off N'Dour's music spectacularly without skimping on the more talk-heavy scenes.

In any event, I Bring What I Love is at least worth watching for anyone interested in Youssou N'Dour's music, but those viewers should note that it's mostly worth watching because of him, not because it's actually a good film. It does mention some of the important issues that have affected his career but it doesn't handle them very well and wastes too much time on trivia. Expect plenty of great music, but not much more than that.

The Verdict

Guilty of failing as a good documentary, but let off with a fine because of the superlative talents of its subject.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Oscilloscope
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• English
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Concerts and Musicals
• Documentary
• Performance

Distinguishing Marks

• Bonus Performances
• Deleted Scenes

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