Most Westerners know Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour as an occasional collaborator of Peter Gabriel. (He’s the one keening the coda of “In Your Eyes.”) Back home, N’Dour’s fame is on par with that of Bono or Bowie; as the continent’s first recording artist to go platinum, he’s a beacon of populist Pan-African pride. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary isn’t just a meet-and-greet profile, however, and after a rapid-fire montage covering his early career, the film assumes you know all you need to regarding N’Dour’s superstardom. Rather, it’s his riskiest gamble that’s the focus: a 2004 project called Egypt, in which the devout Muslim openly explores his faith with an Arabic orchestra. Mixing the secular with the sacred didn’t sit well with N’Dour’s hometown fans, and the musician found himself courting pariahhood.
It’s this concentrated portrait of an artist betting on a highly personal, boundary-pushing project that lifts I Bring What I Love above the level of a VH1 special, even if Vasarhelyi & Co. closely skirt hagiography. When the movie lets the music do the talking, you understand the singer’s determination to see the album through. Praise filtered through pop is never an easy sell, but such gorgeously transcendental expressions can’t—and shouldn’t—be ignored. —David Fear