‘Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat’ Review: Innovative Doc Draws a Connection Between Jazz Music and the Assassination of Patrice Lumumba

Juxtaposing the story of the murder of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba with a musical tour of jazzman Louis Armstrong and with the expansion of the United Nations after the independence of many African countries in the 1960s might be tall order. Trickier still would be telling this complex story, full of many characters and plot swerves, in a nonlinear manner while filling the screen with written clues providing context like a bibliography of an academic thesis. Writer and director Johan Grimonprez sets himself a difficult task with “Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat,” yet accomplishes it with astonishing success. The film plays like both a dense historical text and a lively jazz concert while proving itself to be an invigorating piece of documentary filmmaking.

Touching on far more than the decolonization of Africa, Grimonprez’s ambitious essay film encompasses the political and historical upheavals the world over — including the alleged involvement of the American CIA — that led to the end of the dream of a united Global South during the height of the Cold War. Lumumba and Armstrong are just two of the many players. The events start with another radical African leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and his takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and continues well after Lumumba’s murder to show how the world changed after him.

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The film plays like a most dramatic history lesson, full of theatrics, heightened emotions and vivid characters. This is politics presented as grand spectacle and ironic comedy: an original treatment of how a young popular African leader was assassinated in a coup d’etat so that colonial powers can keep profiting from his country’s mineral wealth. “Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” might be an entertaining piece of cinema, but it’s also a sober account of historical facts. All of this plays to the rhythm of American jazz music of the time, to emphasize how the State Department used Armstrong and other Black musicians to deflect from Lumumba’s murder by sending them on a tour of African nations as goodwill ambassadors.

The melodramatic comedy is provided by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe in indignation at the United Nations, and by telling the story of musician Dizzy Gillespie’s 1964 campaign for president. The historical context is provided in archival footage of speeches by familiar faces from Malcolm X to Dwight Eisenhower. Additionally, Grimonprez uses excerpts from two books: “My Country, Africa” by activist Andrée Blouin, who organized women in the Congo during that period, and “Congo Inc.” by Congo-based writer In Koli Jean Bofane, who witnessed the events firsthand. These testimonials coalesce the sprawling narrative into an intimate and visceral historical record.

In collaboration with editor Rik Chaubet, Grimonprez brings all these disparate elements and characters to vibrant life using the staccato rhythm of jazz as guide and framework. Like a soulful jazz piece, “Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” ebbs and flows in complicated ways. Sometimes a long solo — or in this case, a particular story not immediately linked to the overall narrative — takes center stage. It might be jarring at first, but before long it snaps into place and becomes a necessary part of the concerto. The speeches, testimonials and archival footage all play to the rhythm of the musicians featured in the film. Sometimes the editing is slow; at others, quick cuts build in a crescendo to a gripping and moving finale. Consider Blouin’s testimony, teamed with Nina Simone’s warm and familiar voice. It’s not just a memoir excerpt read while footage of the author plays on screen but a haunting tale full of both pain and optimism.

This is confident and risky filmmaking — confident because it trusts the audience to understand the complicated narrative, risky because in throwing so much at the audience, it could end up alienating them. And perhaps riskiest of all is that the filmmakers force the audience to engage and think with this material. The linkages are not always immediately apparent. The contemporary situation in the Congo is never mentioned, not even tangentially, yet the parallels are clear. The players might be different, but history is repeating itself. No one can leave this movie without thinking about Africa — in general and the Congo in particular — in intricate new ways.

“Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” might sound overwhelming or too academic, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s an entertaining and instructive documentary that presents a huge canvas on which it masterfully explains a complicated historical moment. It’s dense yet nuanced, managing to capture so many disparate threads that combined to result in Lumumba’s murder. At the same time, it never succumbs to telling this story through stock archival footage or talking heads. Instead, it uses jazz music to innovate the form and find a rhythm all its own.

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