“You have to change it because you didn’t choose it.” The defiant mantra that evolves over the course of Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s scrappy but heartfelt hip-hop street-musical “Casablanca Beats,” his third time in Cannes but first time in competition, could be a rallying cry for any youth activism group, anywhere in the world. But it’s the specificity of the setting, in the music room of an embattled Casablanca arts center, where a motley collection of local adolescents bond, bicker and brag through the medium of hip-hop, that gives Ayouch’s film the buzz of real-life resistance emerging in real time, demonstrating how music builds into a movement.
This is filmmaking as celebration and also intervention — in casting the center’s real attendees as fictionalized versions of themselves, Ayouch is not just telling the story of the notorious Casablanca neighborhood of Sidi Moumen that he, as a longtime resident of the city, knows so well. He is also making a difference within that community: With the film shot in fits and starts over the course of two years, Ayouch’s agenda in passionate support of institutions like this one, and teachers like Anas (Anas Basbousi, also a rapper-turned-teacher in real life) is unmistakable.
And so “Casablanca Beats” with its non-professional cast and real-world setting, is a beguiling mix of documentary and fiction, reflected in the aesthetics of Virginie Surdej and Amine Messadi’s dynamic, off-the-cuff photography. But other attempts at cross-breeding approaches and genre elements don’t work quite so well. Vérité social commentary, for example, sits at odds with the framing of the film as a classical inspirational-teacher narrative, right down to a final moment that, insamuch as a ragtag gang of adolescent Moroccan rappers on a rooftop ever could, plays like a riff on the “Oh captain, my captain!” moment from “Dead Poets Society.”
The film begins in that register too, with the arrival to Casablanca of newly recruited hip-hop teacher Asan. We only ever hear snippets of Asan’s backstory (during an argument, one of the kids resorts to the old “those who can’t, teach” logic in reference to Asan’s now defunct music career) but his renegade, harsh-but fair attitude is quickly established. First, he runs afoul of his new employers — the tired-eyed female administrators given the thankless task of fielding angry parents convinced the center is a hotbed of loose morals and daughter-corruption — by painting a graffiti mural across one of the classroom’s walls. And second, he listens impassively to his new class’s first attempts to write rap and then proceeds to dissect each one mercilessly, like he’s the “mean judge” (aka the Simon Cowell) on a singing talent show.
The students exchange uneasy glances, then work twice as hard to try to impress him. Some of them even manage it, especially the two girls who team up as a duo and write an overtly feminist rap — also the film’s best and catchiest track, even if we could wish, as with all the music, it had been developed into a full-length rap rather than left as a fragment.
Interspersed between the docu-style classroom segments, recording sessions and impromptu performances, there are digressions following one or other of the students back to their home life for a time, and, in lieu of anything more dramatic to reveal about the rootless, charismatic but sadly underdeveloped Asan, various shots of him befriending a stray dog. And there is throughout, of course, a lot of terrific music (the original compositions were written by Mike and Fabien Kourtzer) and even a brief standing-up-to-authority musical number which could have been pulled from one of the grittier Bollywood extravaganzas.
The sense of a film finding its way as it goes is inevitable as Ayouch did indeed shape the narrative while the shoot was ongoing. But while that approach adds spontaneity and verve it also subtracts in terms of clear emotional arcs and dramatic crescendos. Many of the little stories it contains feel stunted, with their climaxes and complications occurring offscreen, like with one of the girls castigated by her older brother for wanting to perform in public. Or another who is banned altogether from attending class by her parents, before sneaking back in to give those poor administrators another ethical headache. One young man gains the nickname “The Imam” for the irritating piety and judginess he displays especially toward his female classmates in matters of religious etiquette. Still another reports how he “got destroyed in the comments” for daring to suggest on social media that Christians weren’t all bad.
Without developing any one of these storylines further, “Casablanca Beats” somewhat flattens out the fascinating internal diversity of opinion, religious observance and attitude within the group, in favor of giving the impression of solidarity and common purpose. It’s perhaps a little glib to make a choral event of a hip-hop musical when hip-hop is so much a medium for individual creative expression — for a single voice to speak its truth — but it’s hard to argue when the results are this energetic, this empowering and this irresistibly youthful.