‘Soundtrack To A Coup d’Etat’ Review: Experimental Documentary Deftly Explores The Connections Between Jazz & The Congo [Sundance]

A formally rigorous and free-associative dive into a decade’s worth of political fighting in the Congo, from roughly 1955 to 1965, Johan Grimonprez’sSoundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” is a fascinating and sprawling historical overview. Eschewing the usual mix of contextual talking heads, the Belgian filmmaker and multimedia artist instead adopts its narrative approach from the jazz that flows freely throughout the film and helps frame the political struggles of the Congo. Splitting the difference between academic essays and improvisational performances, this 2.5-hour documentary takes what could be dense subject matter and makes it feel very much alive. 

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Essentially documenting the aftermath of Congolese independence from Belgium in 1960 and the country’s attempt to form a post-colonial state outside of Western political influence, ‘Soundtrack’s’ central thesis revolves around the intersection of jazz music — specifically by Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, and Louis Armstrong — and CIA actions within the African continent. 

If those two subjects sound somewhat incongruous, Grimonprez, alongside editor Rik Chaubet, manages to find a connective through-line, beginning and ending the film with Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s infiltration of a UN security council meeting to call attention to the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected official in the post-colonial Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The Eisenhower administration’s inability to control Lumumba meant that the Congo’s natural resources — then uranium, now conflict minerals that help make consumer electronics — were up for grabs. Inevitably, this led the CIA to do what it usually does in American interests: stage a coup under the cover of emissary trips by unknowing jazz musicians, specifically Louis Armstrong. 

With all this dense socio-political context, Grimonprez shockingly never loses its thematic thread, fast-cutting his film to the syncopation of Amstrong, Dizzy, and Simone while also overlaying excerpts from three memoirs — Andrée Blouin’s “My Country, Africa, Koli Jean Bofane’s “Congo, Inc.,” and Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “To Katanga and Back” — and enough pull quotes to fill an academic book. It’s a rich, concentrated documentary that utilizes a multi-modal format that often feels novel in its deployment of images and texts, something that isn’t usually the case for documentaries. The film has a forward progression but also constantly utilizes looping narrative threads, often returning to scenes, images, and quotes to give fuller context. 

Incrementally, a picture emerges that pits neoliberal American interests against Lumumba’s decolonizing efforts in the Congo. When Grimonprez pulls in Malcolm X and his support for an imagined United States of Africa, it feels like a piece with a narrative that is sprawling in its players and implications but also quite simple in its purpose: namely, the US wants to control these natural resources through any means. Most damning, perhaps, is the weaponization of the United Nations as a so-called ‘peace keeping’ force, but only for western interests. 

That Armstrong gets caught up with a CIA-backed coup is honestly incredible. His trips to the Congro ultimately act as a colonizing force in their right, something he is only privy to after the fact. This weaponization of jazz and the arts, more generally, also speaks to the ways in which American intelligence agencies have essentially infiltrated every aspect of American life. A short detour into the connections between the CIA and MOMA could be its own film and act as a microcosm for how colonial forces will use everything at their disposal to protect their interests.

Where the film stumbles, occasionally, is in its shifts to the present, rightly drawing connections between the assassination of Lumumba to current mining projects and how the Congo has become a grab-bag for resources tied to our technological dependence. While these are essential historical connections, they threaten to overwhelm a film that juggles multiple narrative and thematic interests. Yet, even if the film threatens to bustle over with ideas, the “Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” format deftly juggles several narrative threads, making history feel more alive — and in sync — than many other documentaries of its kind. [A-]

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