[Sundance 2024] SOUNDTRACK TO A COUP D'ETAT -- Political Essay Film Is Riveting and Challenges the Viewer
Review by Sean Boelman
In recent years, the Sundance documentary competition sections have largely been filled with biographies or social justice films, with anything more formally audacious generally being relegated to other sidebars, like NEXT. Johan Grimonprez’s Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat, playing in the World Cinema Documentary competition, is the exception to that rule — an essay film that swings for the fences and is mostly satisfying despite its complex nature.
Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat explores how the United States government and the Belgian monarchy, among other forces, conspired to use some of the most influential African-American musicians of the 20th century as part of their plot to assassinate the Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba. It’s an incredibly wild story, and one you might not have heard, but it’s a lot more zeitgeisty than it seems on paper.
The biggest thing working against the movie is how incredibly dense it is. It’s understandable that the film is so complex — convoluted even — because the web of deceit being spun here is more intricate than virtually any espionage thriller you’d have seen. Still, for audiences who aren’t able (or willing) to put in the work to dissect the story, it could be easy to get lost in its moving pieces.
Still, for all its complexity, Grimonprez manages to tell these interconnecting stories in a way that is consistently engaging. For a documentary that’s two and a half hours long, it moves by quite quickly, thanks to the combined efforts of the stranger-than-fiction story and the kinetic jazz soundtrack lent to it by its subjects.
All of this is thanks to the tremendous talent of director Grimonprez. The documentary comprises entirely archive footage, yet there’s such a liveliness and modernity to it. It never feels as if we’re being taught a history lesson. The way Grimonprez weaves the stories of these musical figures into contemporary political events is something that many documentaries have tried and failed to do in the past.
Admittedly, the movie does bank a lot on the audience already knowing and respecting who these musicians are. For festival audiences, that’s not going to be an issue. The names involved include jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Dizzy Gillespie, and more. But it is hard to imagine that a viewer who comes in that doesn’t have an appreciation — or at least a passing knowledge — of this cohort wouldn’t be frustrated by the deluge of information thrown at them.
However, Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat is a film that reward patience. The hectic first hour, when all the various pieces in this political chess game are being put into place, is incredibly hectic. But when the story begins to fall into place, the suppositions Grimonprez makes about the connection between this incident and its greater societal implications are as terrifying as they are brilliant.
Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat is maybe the most singular documentary playing at this year’s Sundance. Although it’s not always successful — you could say it’s occasionally overambitious to a fault — there’s no denying the film’s sheer audacity, something which very few nonfiction works have these days. If nothing else, it’s an entertaining ride that poses some fascinating questions.
Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat is screening at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.