Mohammad Assaf in The Idol (Adopt Films)

Mohammed Assaf in The Idol (Adopt Films)

Hopefully, a movie described as a “feel good flick from the Gaza Strip” won’t always seem like a novelty. But for now, at least that helps set The Idol, a biopic of Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf, apart from other films about musicians and their roads to success.

It opens with a young Mohammed (Qais Atallah) singing for neighborhood children along with his back-up band of friends. Right away, they have two problems: their instruments are cobbled together out of odds and ends and they’re surrounded by ungrateful grown-ups. “People are dying and you’re singing?” asks one woman, after she dumps a bucket of water on them in protest. She fails to see what for Mohammed and his sister, Nour, couldn’t be clearer: music is their only means out poverty.

Watching the children, especially the fearless Nour, go toe-to-toe with skeptical adults is the primary pleasure of the first half of the story. Sadly, kidney failure strikes Nour at a young age, at which point she is relegated to the sidelines. Though Mohammed impresses many with his voice, success does not come for him in time to save his sister. A vocal coach and would-be manager suggests this may be because he has not yet connected his voice to his heart.

Skipping ahead in time, an older Mohammed (Tawfeek Barhom) is even further from stardom and prone to fits of frustration. Stranded in Gaza for political reasons, he tries to audition for the TV series Arab Idol (headquartered in Cairo) via Skype. When electrical issues comically ruin his chance, he lashes out at those trying to help him.

It takes the intervention of some old friends and strangers to correct his path and push him toward the finish line. Mohammed receives more than his fair share of deus ex machinas from these helpers, who repeatedly show up to save the day. These occurrences manage not to feel unbelievable, in no small part because the filmmakers devote significant screen time highlighting the beauty and impact of Mohammed’s singing and how his voice brings out the best in everyone who hears it.

Mohammed makes it to Cairo for an in-person audition for Arab Idol, but a few plot twists remain as he deals with the pressure of becoming a symbol of hope for an entire people. At this point, footage of the real-life Assaf’s rise is intercut, and there is a definite poignancy in seeing the crowds who gathered in the streets to cheer him on.

It was a wise move by director Hany Abu-Assad to remind us of the genuine heartbeats that inspired this somewhat formulaic tale. The underlying power of the story, along with its great cast (especially Hiba Atallah as Nour), more than make up for a few superficial flaws.

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
Produced by Ali Jaafar and Amira Diab
Written by Abu-Assad and Sameh Zoabi
Released by Adopt Films
Arabic with English subtitles
Argentina/Palestine. 95 min. Not rated
With Qais Atallah, Hiba Atallah, and Tawfeek Barhom