I’m going to start this review by saying I know Mohammed Assaf, the subject of “The Idol.” I don’t know him in the way you would know a friend, but I know his music, I know of his success, and of the hope he’s stood for for so many in the Arab world, Palestinians in particular. Academy Award-nominated co-writer and director Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”) tries to recapture the magic of his journey to musical stardom and of his voice, which has been compared to some of the Arab world’s most respected and renowned singers. And it’s partially because I know Assaf’s music that it is with a heavy heart to say that “The Idol” doesn’t live up to the weight of his journey and would have worked far better as a documentary.
Mohammed (Kais Attalah) and his sister Nour (Hiba Attalah) are rambunctious children, often found running around their native Gaza, causing trouble, much to the chagrin of their mother (Manal Awwad). Realizing her brother’s talent, the duo, along with two of their friends form a band, sans instruments. Using their brain power, they come up with ways to make money to buy second-hand instruments and convince their parents to let them perform at weddings and social events in town.
Everything seems to come to a stop when Nour is diagnosed with kidney failure. Trying to help his sister, Mohammed tries to sell CDs of songs he’s recorded so that he could make money for a kidney transplant operation. After not really getting anywhere and coming down on emotionally difficult times, Mohammed (the older version is played by Tawfeek Barhom) spends years focusing on school and gets a job as a taxi driver to help pay the bills. His dream of singing not having disappeared, he finds out that “Arab Idol,” the Middle East version of “American Idol,” is holding auditions in Cairo. Putting his life in danger by trying to leave Gaza, Mohammed is determined and that determination sees him through the competition. With millions of eyes watching, he becomes a symbol of hope in an area where there is very little.
I do admire the film’s spirit, of which it has plenty. The child actors especially do well with the mediocre material to work with. There’s a lot of story aspects that don’t quite hit the emotional nerve they’re meant to, however. During “Arab Idol,” there are segments in which we get to know the competitors and this is when emotions become high. While there’s a lot of potential, a lot of it feels too generic. It’s only in the end, when the real Mohammed Assaf is seen winning the competition and there are shots of the thousands of people that the goosebumps appear and you know what his achievement has accomplished on a larger scale.
Assaf’s voice is phenomenal, strong and worth listening to. And as much as Abu-Assad has directed great things in the past, the script isn’t as strong here and struggles a bit to maintain audience engagement. Seeing the real Assaf would have worked far better, especially when the film opts to have Tawfeek Barhom lip-sync to Assaf’s voice. It doesn’t look authentic enough to muster an emotional response to his voice, which should have been the case. “The Idol” leaves a lot to be desired and a documentary-style format may have served Assaf’s journey better. There isn’t enough conviction within the narrative and the plot is lackluster and plays too easily into its conflicts without being able to properly execute its conflicts. This isn’t to say that it’s a terrible film, but it is ultimately underwhelming.
"The Idol" leaves a lot to be desired and a documentary-style format may have served Assaf's journey better. This isn't to say that it's a bad film, but it is ultimately underwhelming.