Baby, He's a Star

Please, stop whatever you're doing right now and type “Mdou Moctar” into YouTube—and savor the fact that you can. Moctar is a miraculous Tuareg guitarist and singer from Niger, a master of hypnotic Saharan electro-drone blues, each song burning on and on, all flatness and grit, like the wind grinding low over the desert. But he plays with more flash and bite than is the Tuareg norm, peeling off artful solos inspired by the fretboard heroics of Western rock and jazz, crafting something the West has failed to: fresh and vital guitar music unique to this millennium.

His rise is a curious triumph of low-end high-tech. Knocked-out audiences captured his early gigs—often at weddings—and occasional recordings via cellphone, then swapped SIM cards, a common practice. Eventually, the young marvel's dreamy track “Anar” turned up on the second volume of the Sahel Sounds label's essential Music From Saharan Cellphones series, compilations you can download for just $5 apiece.

Now Moctar's route to fame has taken an even more curious turn: Christopher Kirkley, the music archivist who founded Sahel Sounds, has directed Moctar in a striking, gentle bliss-out of a feature, one that offers all the thrilling close-ups of fingers on strings that those SIM cards couldn't. Moctar and his playing are enough to make this a must-see, but Kirkley is too savvy to just trust that audiences will turn up for some of the globe's greatest music. Instead, he has built his film around a hook that should prove irresistible to crate-diggers and oddity-seekers around the world: He's pitching this as Niger's Purple Rain, right down to father issues, a Morris Day-like rival, a hero who needs to learn to give his bandmates' song ideas a chance, and the hot-violet motorbike on which Moctar putters across sunbaked flatlands, with his love interest (Ghaicha Ibrahim) hanging on tight.

The title—rendered onscreen in purple-lightning letters—is Kirkley's canniest joke. The translation: Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red In It. (It's the first fiction film in the Tuareg language.)

The borrowings might lure you in, but don't expect a suit from Minneapolis' most litigious genius to shut this down. Every fictionalized-musician movie is built on Purple Rain's chassis, and this one's motor is all its own—the music of Moctar and his rivals simmers alluringly rather than building to the hotshot Freudian god-sex of Prince. The movie follows suit, with Kirkley staging excellent performance sequences, passable dialogue scenes and a host of arresting individual images: the mud-gold adobe dwellings of Agadez; the faces of children and livestock; the easy bustle of desert streetlife; Ibrahim, on a picnic, saying, “I'd like to see the sea” as the camera pans across rippled sand, a stilled ocean of it. The greatest departure from Purple Rain is its well-adjusted gentleness, its all-ages warmth, the low-key way its minor dramas resolve themselves, how it leaves you feeling it's an introduction to a great musician rather than a monument he had commissioned of himself. By all means, entice your friends by saying, “It's a low-budget African Purple Rain—doesn't that sound crazy?” Then groove with them for 75 minutes and watch them buy every Moctar and Sahel Sounds record they can.

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