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Casablanca Beats review – Moroccan musical drama plays too many familiar notes

Outside of some fun hip-hop numbers, this tale of creativity and suburban conservatism fails to stand out within a crowded genre

Nabil Ayouch’s Casablanca Beats is a film about an inspiring young teacher challenging suburban conservatism through art and life lessons to his pupils. If that sounds overly familiar on paper, it’s even more so in practice. Though the setting of Sidi Moumen (a suburb of the iconic eponymous city) adds some undeniable freshness – this isn’t a world we see on screen very often – Casablanca Beats’s scrappy plotting and workmanlike style stop it from ever standing out in a very crowded genre.

The teacher at the heart of the story is Anas (Anas Basbousi), a former rapper starting a new chapter as an instructor at Sidi Moumen’s “Positive School,” an arts centre for local youths. Anas, naturally, teaches rap, attracting a large and lively class of students despite the frequent reluctance and anger of their families. From here, Ayouch devotes most of his time to the classroom, as the kids bicker and debate about what you should and shouldn’t rap about, using this framework to tackle larger questions of Moroccan society, from misogyny to the place of Islam in setting the nation’s rules.

It makes for a very loose structure, which does help realistically ground the story as just another chapter of Moroccan life (most of the kids are essentially playing themselves) but also gets in the way of big moments of emotion or catharsis. After the first class in which Anas is weirdly hostile (an odd beat that is never adequately explained), everyone settles into their dynamics and friendships very fast, and there isn’t much in the way of musical progress for any of the kids. Some might become more confident, but their voices, rhythms, and lyrics are the same at the end as they are at the start.

Of course, the film is building towards a climactic concert which provokes violent anger from the local religious men, but this finale is still a bit muted, Ayouch’s wobbly handheld camera never fully conveying either the joy of the concert or chaos of the protest outside. Casablanca Beats is at its best in the moments where Ayouch allows himself to step out of the kitchen sink realism that defines a lot of the film with a couple of daydreaming sequences as the kids imagine taking their rap skills to the streets.

Suddenly, colours pop and everything gets more free-flowing, essentially giving us hip-hop musical numbers in the middle of an otherwise straight-faced drama. You find yourself wishing that these were the scenes the film was built around, instead of the exceptions to a drab norm. Even if the rapping itself isn’t always great, each kid’s individual song provides a good insight into their psyche and beliefs, while huge credit has to be paid to the translation team, trying to match rhythms and rhymes between Arabic and English. There are moments of undeniable charm in Casablanca Beats, and the kids give mostly solid performances, but it ultimately tells a cliched story in a way that is less moving and satisfying than a lot of its genre stablemates.

Casablanca Beats is now showing on Curzon Home Cinema and in UK cinemas.

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