email print share on Facebook share on Twitter share on LinkedIn share on reddit pin on Pinterest

SUNDANCE 2024 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat


- Mid-century American jazz soundtracks anti-colonial struggles in Johan Grimonprez’s study of the Congo Crisis and Patrice Lumumba’s CIA-backed assassination

Review: Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat

Neatly formatted and aligned capitalised text; stuttering newsreel footage; the rollicking snare hits of a drum fill – Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat [+see also:
interview: Johan Grimonprez
film profile
is an immersion in history, yet it also doesn’t forgo being an experience to savour as a viewer. Directed by Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez – whose practice extends into multimedia work and curation – the film’s “how” is as important as the “what” and the “why”, making it as memorable an aesthetic experience as it is a rigorous accounting of the Congo Crisis and the wider Cold War. It has premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance, constituting perhaps the director’s highest-profile festival launch to date.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

What’s unique, and arguably more up for discussion, is how the film proffers a contentious argument of its own, compared to the more inarguable accounting of the historical events. It regards American jazz, and especially its icons such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and percussionist Max Roach, as not solely witnesses whose music existed in parallel with the times, but also as actors and assets on the Congo Crisis’s many fronts. There’s an enjoyably dissonant tang as we hear Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy non-diegetically provide a propulsive rhythm to United Nations hearings and presidential planes docking; more provocative is the notion that these artists contributed to a US advantage in the Cold War through their deployment in “culture washing” – acting as ambassadors from the USA to Africa, whilst the former quelled its left-wing independence movements with the musicians acting as “camouflage”. The film’s bookending sequence, showing a storming of the UN by Roach and vocalist Abbey Lincoln, symbolises that art form’s fightback, and echoes forward into questions of artists’ solidarity towards international struggles in the present.

The doc has a pacy, yet sprawling, 150-minute length, and Grimonprez excels in his task of providing a potted history of the DRC’s troubled liberation and the numerous narratives swirling beside it. Historical scholars and the well-informed will be nodding along; for a large majority of others, it will help fill in the blanks of an episode in Africa’s decolonisation more known than fully understood. Compared to the hazier and questionable framing of the music, it makes a more convincing argument on DR Congo’s vital centrality to the modern world, the heart of Africa whose pulse emanates outwards: following its seizing by King Leopold II of Belgium, the exploitation of rubber became a vital global commodity, whilst its uranium mines contributed to no less than the creation of the atomic bomb. As the decades have passed, and a left-wing reading of history becomes synonymous with a general consensus, it recasts Patrice Lumumba and his chief of protocol, activist Andrée Blouin, as vital statesmen when they’ve formerly been perceived as dangerous radicals, and even Nikita Khrushchev as a convincing bulwark against American influence on world affairs, previously pilloried by the world’s media as he literally banged his shoe at the UN speaker’s rostrum.

The tone of paranoid intrigue and the spree of disparate yet pertinent cross-references will make viewers recall novelist Don DeLillo; indeed, Grimonprez has perhaps shown his hand here, having literally used passages from the author’s White Noise and Mao II in his career-making video Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. Yet Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat succeeds even better as a routine historical narrative, rather than as arty witchery, although its sense of presentation certainly helps propel its fluid assimilation of the facts.

Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat is a co-production by Belgium, France and the Netherlands, staged by Onomatopee Films, Warboys Films and BALDR. Its international sales are overseen by Mediawan Rights.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.

Privacy Policy