If ever there was a potent metaphor for the obstacles inherent in achieving one’s goals of rock stardom, it’s paying homage to Prince in a language with no word for purple.
The title of Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, the new starring vehicle for Nigerien pop sensation Mdou Moctar, translates to Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It. Inelegant as it may be, the intention is clear: director Christopher Kirkley hopes to do for Moctar what Purple Rain did for that elfin Minnesotan funk god. The similarities don’t end there, either: Moctar is decked out in a shimmering purple robe, and rides around the desert streets of Agadez (standing in for urban Minneapolis) on a garish purple motorcycle. But while “Tuareg remake of Purple Rain” is a hell of a hook, it does not quite accurately describe the film – nor does it do it justice.
If you’ve seen Purple Rain as many times as I have, of course, the parallels will be apparent. Moctar plays a newcomer to the bustling Agadez music scene, with a hunger for stardom and talent to spare. There’s a cocky rival musician (Kader Tanoutanoute, standing in for Morris Day), a pair of bandmates vying to get their compositions performed (a sort of male Wendy and Lisa), and a stern father with a secret musical history. Moctar meets cute with Apollonia analog Rhaicha Ibrahim at a pawn shop, and the film builds to an emotional climax at a battle of the bands. On paper, the “remake” tag seems more than appropriate.
As an experience, however, Akounak is a very different beast. Where Prince’s story plays like a traditional, somewhat bombastic melodrama, Moctar’s is gentle, lyrical, and leisurely paced. While I don’t speak a word of Tuareg (and I’m fairly certain I had never before seen its fascinating written form), it seems safe to say that the dialog is mostly, if not entirely, improvised. There is drama, but it manifests largely in two heartbreaking acts of personal betrayal, both of which are resolved (and both of which, interestingly, are original to this telling). Beyond that, however, Akounak mostly plays like a good-natured hang-out film. Fortunately, Moctar’s sweet-natured, fictionalized alter ego is far easier to hang out with than Prince’s fussy, egomaniacal “The Kid.”
But, as with Purple Rain before it, the plot of Akounak is mostly there to prop up the soundtrack. Moctar’s music is a mesmerizing mix of electric rock and traditional Tuareg folk music, and breathes life into even the film’s most stationary moments. Moctar himself is a fascinating figure; he is one of the first Tuareg musicians to incorporate electronic elements, building his reputation through an underground network of cell-phone traders (a fact repeatedly referenced in the film, though never fully explained. As a result, he’s been making a splash far beyond his native Niger. If his performance in Akounak is an indicator, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Ultimately, I do fear that Akounak’s connection to Purple Rain might serve as a stumbling block: hipsters looking for something akin to “Turkish Star Wars” or “Filipino Batman and Robin” will be disappointed at the lack of camp value, and more bookish international music fans might look down their noses at such a cheap gimmick. But those who give it the time and adjust their expectations accordingly, it just might have its intended effect: to introduce and mythologize Mdou Moctar to a new audience, just as Purple Rain did for Prince in 1984. It worked for me, anyway.
Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It (Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai)
dir. Christopher Kirkley