How can you go wrong with a cast like this? Amandla! stars Nelson Mandela, and the all-time heroes of South African music Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim. The credentials and soundtrack are impeccable.
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-part Harmony explores the role of music in the ANC’s fight to liberate South Africa: songs of protest, songs of mourning, songs of celebration and jingles to assist in military training. “We put in an AK there, took out a bible there,” explains a former ANC combatant on the art of adapting Christian songs to a guerrilla camp. There are more fabulous one-liners (“They banned the songs, but how do you stop people from singing?”); a highlight is the interview with white, former riot-control policemen over a barbie. The film is a co-production with the SABC, which provided extraordinary archive footage.
The film is a labour of love that took director Lee Hirsch nine years to complete. The US filmmakers’ backgrounds are unusual: both are new to documentary features; in their regular jobs, Hirsch makes music videos while Executive Producer Sherry Simpson makes commercials. I was curious to see how MTV/Madison Avenue production values would be applied to the story of an African revolution. The result is oddly unsettling. It’s much more luscious and visually ambitious than your average doc: tracking shots for the interviews, crane shots for the performances, and glossy slo-shutter reconstruction scenes; but for my taste the editorial style borrows too much from the genre of gushy US bio pics. Watching this, you’d think that the ANC had had all the best tunes, but had never disagreed over political or military strategy and had never made a wrong move throughout the war. It’s a sanitised, triumphalist version of history.
What disappointed me most, however, was the film’s failure to capture – until the very last scenes at least – the sheer exuberance and effervescence of the musical expression of South Africa’s liberation struggle. Despite the power of the music, the doc manages to impose a downbeat, sombre mood. It is indeed salutary to be reminded of the high cost that South Africans paid for what we now take for granted, i.e., majority rule. I imagine that’s part of what the film’s Ford Foundation sponsors wanted, and I don’t mean to suggest the struggle was a jolly picnic or a mere setting for a musical. At the same time I do feel the serious aspects of the story could have been told while giving more time and space for the viewer to experience the raw emotional power of the music itself. The glorious soundtrack, the true heart of A Revolution in Four-part Harmony, is not given the free rein it deserves.