Doc on Jazz and Colonial History

8 Min Read

Louis Armstrong arrived in the Congolese capital, Leopoldville (now known as Kinshasa), on October 28, 1960, armed with his trumpet and wiping sweat from his brow. His visit was part of a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Africa, an arrangement Armstrong felt ambivalent about. Still, the Congolese people gave Satchmo, as the American jazz trumpeter was known, a near royal welcome. Drummers and dancers carried him to his performance venue on a red chair, fashioned like a throne. Civilians cheered him on. Ten thousand people showed up to watch him play.

This was a momentous occasion, a storied event for the newly independent republic of the Congo. Four months before Armstrong came to play jazz, the country had freed itself from the colonial grip of Belgium to become one of the more than dozen postcolonial African nations formed in 1960. But the region was still plagued with problems, most of them stemming from the hawkish American and Belgian interest in their natural resources. Unbeknownst to Armstrong, his visit was a CIA cover. As the musician played across the Congo, international officials made plans to, in their words, “neutralize” the country’s democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba.  

Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat

The Bottom Line

Riveting and propulsive.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Director: Johan Grimonprez

2 hours 30 minutes

In his kinetic documentary Soundtrack to a Coup D’etat, the Belgian filmmaker John Grimonprez traces how the U.S. used “Jazz Ambassadors” to build good will during the Cold War all while orchestrating clandestine operations to destabilize the Congo. Grimonprez chronicles the formation of the United Nations — whose history has gained new urgency in light of the agency’s enfeebled responses to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza — and shows how Black people in America protested U.S. imperialism and built international solidarity with African revolutionaries. The film, which premiered at Sundance and won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematic Innovation, also investigates Belgium’s brutal colonial history and complicity in hobbling Congolese independence efforts. 

Grimonprez explores disturbing threads of Cold War history and their present-day implications through an essay structure. Like Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, Raoul Peck’s haunting 1991 doc on the same subject, Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat shapes its narrative around the archives. It relies exclusively on audio memoirs, narrated excerpts of political novels, performance videos and the songs of America’s most influential jazz musicians. Rik Chaubet’s agile editing links these disparate elements to build a propulsive two-and-a-half-hour whole. Whereas Peck’s doc, which had a recent restoration, is political drama as ghost story, Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat plays like a syncopated thriller.

The strands of Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat bend, swing and dance to the film’s archival jazz score. The tunes of the genre’s most prolific artists — Armstrong, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Duke Ellington and Nina Simone — soundtrack diplomatic meetings, clips of newspaper headlines and audio revealing covert operations. Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” pulses through the background as we’re introduced to the main historical players. Sprightly title cards, designed by Hans Lettany, cast Malcolm X, former Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev, Lumumba’s chief of protocol Andrée Blouin and former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, as characters in a fictional sitcom. This touch of levity makes the film’s zig-zagging historical narrative more accessible. 

Grimonprez opens his film with a melange of audiovisual clips — excerpts of the jazz hour program on Voice of America; scenes of Khrushchev pounding his fists at a UN General Assembly meeting; and drummer Roach thrashing at his kit — that capture the frenetic energy of the 60s and the increasing popularity of jazz in the U.S. and around the world. This pseudo-prologue closes with a question, posed by a television anchor, about how 1960 will be remembered. “Years from now when you tell your children about this year we’ve been living through, what scenes will spring to your mind?”

Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat answers this question by transporting viewers back in time, to the days leading up to Congo’s independence. The moment is recounted using excerpts of Blouin’s memoir, My Country, Africa, read by Zap Mama and Marie Daulne. As Lumumba’s chief of protocol, she helped the young leader build a movement in the Congo and facilitated moves that led to independence. She also helped galvanize women in African nations, bringing attention to feminist currents in the decolonization movement. Blouin’s gripping story is told through vivid recollections that set us up to understand the tension between Congo and its colonizer. 

The formation of an independent Congo coincided with radical change in the United Nations, which was formed in 1945 on the premise of maintaining international peace. With the addition of more autonomous nations across Africa and Asia, the key players found themselves in a challenging position: maintain power or commit to their professed democratic ideas? Grimonprez dedicates a substantial chunk of Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat on the hypocrisy of countries like the U.S., Belgium, France and the United Kingdom. Here, history gets streamlined and nuance is collapsed into digestible narrative bits. The frenetic editing might leave some viewers dizzy as they try to sort sober realities from sensational storytelling, but Grimonprez makes thrilling connections that should push viewers to pursue their own research.

Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat fitfully jumps between showcasing the jazz talents of that decade and chronicling the political tensions brewing within the halls of the United Nations. Grimonprez also interjects with moments of modernity, inserting Tesla commercials and Apple advertisements to link the past to the present and the future.

The film asserts that Belgian and American interest in the Congo had more to do with the trillions of untapped mineral resources in the country. The filmmaker and his team have crafted a film that, at its core, empowers people to pay attention. It is impossible not to connect the history of the Congolese people to the present-day failures: Almost 7 million have been displaced as a result of conflicts across the country, and just recently the U.N. Security Council voted to withdraw the 15,000 peacekeepers stationed in the country. 

Where Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat feels less realized is in its synthesis of the present-day impact of imperialism. There’s a focus on the effects on the Congo, but with the film’s interest in propaganda and historical suppression, I found myself wondering how Belgians, like Grimonprez, metabolize their colonial history. What does the nation ask their citizens to remember? Perhaps that’s another question for viewers to explore on their own, or for Grimonprez to tackle next.

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