Inspire Musical Treads Familiar Territory Effectively
The subgenre of “the ambitious foreign teacher who is determined to inspire a ragtag group of disenchanted students” is well worn, to put it mildly. Yet when the formula works, it works well. Walk in Casablanca Beats, written (with the collaboration of Maryam Touzani) and directed by Nabil Ayouch. This is Anas (Anas Basbousi), a former rapper with a gig at the local cultural center in Casablanca. He teaches hip-hop to a diverse group of underprivileged students, uniting them in the process. Each student is forced to confront the repressive traditions in Morocco and challenge the status quo, debating how much they will rebel, whether through their words, dress or otherwise.
“Young as I am, I feel like an old man / I see the future as black as my skin,” Ismail (Ismail Adouab) raps, while Amina (Amina Kannan) is pulled out of class after her parents curators learned that they were being taught hip-hop. “She comes home at night with political talk,” her mother said sadly. Classroom debate scenes are often accompanied by musical numbers. These sequences energize the whole film. The dance of the young actress Zineb Boujemaa of about 45 minutes is particularly remarkable. An energetic dance battle later also comes to mind.
Basbousi, an active musician known as Bawss, has a good look which Ayouch makes the most of. He challenges his students to challenge each other, watching them intently as they discuss issues among themselves and come to their own conclusions. He’ll goad them on when needed (“A lot of things in this country don’t work,” he begins at one point) but they quickly get carried away and challenge other people’s ideologies.
Where Casablanca Beats hesitates a little in its propulsion. There is no real central conflict that animates our teacher. Yes, it allows its students to think more independently and yes which seems like an obvious break for many of them and their more traditional families. But nothing pushes us from one scene to another. No precise objective, no timer, no clear finish line apart from a somewhat ill-defined concert in the third act. This writer will fully admit to letting the contours of this specific subgenre affect their expectations, but the criticism remains.
Yet Ayouch’s aesthetic is natural, the performances he gets from his actors are true. It’s no small feat to get kids to act like kids on screen. Musical breaks and class discussions are both engaging and provocative. You can recall staples like School amazement Where Dead Poets Society at different times, which is more of a compliment than a reductive comparison. Casablanca Beats wears its heart on its sleeves and shouts its themes to the world. Luckily, this is the right path for this.
Casablanca Beats is now in theaters.