It was Mark Twain who said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” which is one way of approaching Belgian filmmaker and multimedia artist Johan Grimonprez’s sprawling, jazz-infused Soundtrack to a Coup d’État. The political essay revisits 1960, a turbulent year in global affairs: Patrice Lumumba rises to power in Congo just as the United States, through the CIA-backed Voice of America radio network, aims to soften America’s image aboard, sending jazz musicians Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, and Max Roach to tour the world. The film positions the jazz musicians as a kind of political cabinet while Gillespie envisions his own run for the White House on TV talk shows back home. It proceeds with a rather kinetic, defiant tone in which the jazz, breaking news, citations, and quotes interrupt the historical footage a more standard documentary may have primarily focused on.
What emerges is an electric, 150-minute-long cinematic geopolitical essay exploring a narrow chapter in the history of the Cold War as Congo achieves independence and elects Lumumba, a leader not exactly friendly to the global interests of Belgium and the United States. As power is consolidated in the UN amongst the newly admitted African nations, world powers struggle to contain the potential fallout and consequences of independence. A few of these musicians, including Roach and Lincoln, provide a soundtrack to stand up to colonial powers. In the wake of Lumumba’s assassination, they take the UN to protest and voice their support of the African block, which asserts their independence while the West plots its coup with both soft and hard power. After all, the uranium used in Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb wasn’t mined in Pennsylvania.
Drawing upon a range of sources––including official documents, home videos, documentary footage, newsreels, and performances––Grimonprez punctuates each passage with quotes and citations as the West seemingly points fingers at each other, building a smoke screen to hide their real intentions and ambitions. Even amongst allies it can get ugly; at one point a quote is attributed to Winston Churchill, who throws shade at US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, coining the progression of “dull, duller, Dulles.” Behind the scenes, assassinations are plotted as Lumumba meets with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Harlem, ratcheting up tensions of a potential alliance.
The Belgium state, too, seems to try walking a fine line in relation to the Congo––until they can no longer control the newly independent state and install their own puppet to reclaim their interests. While Lumumba has been the subject of filmmaker interest for some time, including Raoul Peck’s 2000 epic biopic, where the sprawling, knotty, and thoroughly captivating Soundtrack to a Coup d’État sheds new light is in its form, exploring a global conspiracy playing out often right in view. Made by a Belgian filmmaker / artist, the film is a deep examination of the sins of his county’s past and their complicity in defaulting to the superpowers of the day.
Soundtrack to a Coup d’État premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.