Review: Hany Abu-Assad's 'The Idol'

Hany Abu-Assad's The Idol arrives the same week as another music biopic, Lonely Island's farcical Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. What's interesting about them both is how much they have in common for two films that couldn't be more different. While 'Popstar' indulges in musical biopic tropes in an effort to mock them, The Idol embraces them to more easily tell a story most audiences could never relate to. In almost every way this is a familiar music drama about incredible talent and insurmountable odds, but the difference is that it follows real-life "Arab Idol" winner Mohammed Assaf, who made it big despite growing up in a Gaza refugee camp.

It's a little disappointing that the director of such acclaimed politically charged dramas as Omar and Paradise Now would choose to skirt the Palestinian conflict, but clearly his agenda was to show how that kind of upbringing affected Mohammed and nothing more. The film begins in 2005 as a young Mohammed (Qais Atallah), who everyone says has the voice of an angel, sings in a band alongside his tomboy sister, Nour (Hiba Atallah). Growing up in Gaza they aren't expected to do much but become part of the violence and tumult that surrounds them, but Mohammed and Nour dream to use their musical gifts to get away. To the dismay of the adults around them, the siblings earn what little money they can singing on the streets ("People are dying and you're singing", one lady chastises) or at weddings, until they lose everything to an unscrupulous merchant. Things only get worse for Mohammed when a death of someone he loves leaves him despondent and uncertain about the future.

Years later we catch up with Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) at a time when he isn't sure he'll ever achieve his dreams. He sings in a local band and drives a taxi to make ends meet, but can't seem to get ahead. Gaza has recently been destroyed in attacks, and leaving the city is a hurdle he may not be able to overcome. After nearly giving up, Mohammed is inspired by a childhood friend to try out for "Arab Idol", which has their auditions in Cairo, Egypt. At the risk of never being able to return home, Mohammed secures passage and makes the auditions, only to have more hardship in his path. However it's through all of his trials that Mohammed becomes a symbol of hope to the Palestinian people as he climbs up the "Arab Idol" ranks.

What we never learn is why Mohammed is seen as such an inspiration, as Abu-Assad barely skims the surface of the conflict.  What he wants to show is how Mohammed manages to achieve his dreams despite growing up in a place of such intense suffering, even if we never see that suffering depicted on screen. To keep the focus on Mohammed we never see the full scope of the turmoil; there are no scenes of battles or people dying in the streets.  Abu-Assad also makes the brilliant and bold decision not to subtitle any of Mohammed's songs, so as not to get hung up on the words but the emotional power of his voice.  The Idol rides this wave of emotion to crowd-pleasing effect, just as millions of fellow Palestinians rode along on Mohammed's journey to stardom.

Rating: 3 out of 5