“Thank God for that voice.”
In 2012, Muhammad Assaf traveled from Gaza to Egypt to audition for Arab Idol. Not only did he get on the show, he quickly rose to prominence, being nicknamed “The Rocket” by one of the judges. Assaf’s acclaimed singing voice and time in the spotlight on Arab Idol was embraced by Palestinians as something they could take great pride and hope in. It’s an irresistible human interest story — the kind that would make for a great movie.
Unfortunately, Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. The Idol is Abu-Assad’s most mainstream film to date, and it’s no doubt a crowd pleaser — one can’t help but hope for Assaf as he struggles to make his way to the Arab Idol audition. But for some strange reason, director Abu-Assad takes some time to get us to that moment when Muhammad first impresses the judges and then decides to rush through everything else, robbing the film of much-needed narrative direction.
Instead, The Idol spends a large amount of time chronicling Assaf’s childhood, and while this first chunk of the film is fine, and gives us a nice look into the singer’s early life, it’s too disconnected from the second half of the film. Perhaps not having much of an overall story to work with, the script (by Abu-Assad and Sameh Zoabi) was forced to stretch things thin. The film works best when Assaf is older, and destined for greater things. Tawfeek Barhom is likable as the older Assaf, who seems frequently nervous whenever he’s not singing — but when he finally stops and lets his voice be heard, he’s calm and cool and commanding. Some of the best moments of the film happen when Abu-Assad lets the story drop away and just focuses on Assaf’s voice: a scene where Muhammad sings for a man checking his papers before his journey to Egypt is simply wonderful, as the man watches in awe, completely taken aback by the power of Muhammad’s voice. Later in the film, Muhammad stands alone on a beach, anxious and overwhelmed, then begins to sing to the crashing waves — and things become clear for him again. More moments like this would’ve gone a long way to improving The Idol, but they’re few and far between.
Once Muhammad finally makes it onto Arab Idol, the film decides to rush through his rise to the top with hurried montages, and flat, uncinematic close-ups of TV screens. This is followed by many scenes where people keep telling Muhammad how important he is, and how inspiring he is. Later, when the young man has a panic attack and ends up in the hospital, one of the Arab Idol producers is at his bedside, telling him how important it is for him to win. But the thing is we’ve barely spent anytime with this producer character at all, yet she’s suddenly presented as a close confidant.
The Idol is a hopeful film, and those more familiar with Assaf’s singing may take to the film more than others. The real Muhammad Assaf inspired pride and hope in Palestinians, and that’s something worth shining a spotlight on. It’s just unfortunate the film adaptation of this story feels so underwhelming.