Monday, March 25, 2024

AFI New Africa ’24: Melody of Love

Ethiopia is not just the home of great Highlife musicians and Ethiopiques. Addis Ababa also has a hip and thriving jazz scene. Ironically, Michael, jazz guitarist (and amateur Michael Jackson impersonator) is just starting to catch on there. He has been playing real-life venues like the Africa Jazz Village (Ghion Hotel) and Sounds Jazz Club, with musicians like Mulatu Astatke (who plays himself). Unfortunately, Michael’s mother insists he join her and his sister in Belgium, even though he has zero prospects there. Dutifully, Michael will make his sad goodbyes throughout Edmundo Bejarano’s Melody of Love, which screens during the AFI’s 2024 New Africa Film Festival.

Melody of Love has some of the best incidental and background music of any film screening anywhere this month. Michael is sitting in with some very talented cats, most definitely including Astatke. He also has great friends, like Pollock, a fellow musician, and his romance with Melody is seriously heating up—like steamily so. Yet, his mother says come, so he will obediently go.

He knows this is the wrong thing to do and we the viewers know it is the wrong thing to do, but he does it anyway. Why, colonialism. Seriously,
Melody of Love has been described as a “meditation on the internalized weight of colonialism.” Yet, it seems more like a cautionary argument against immigrating from the only home you have ever known to a foreign country, where you no connections or work waiting for you. That might sound like an overly simplified reading, but it is one audiences can reach from a self-contained viewing, rather than supplementing the film with ersatz Frantz Fanon-style commentary.

Regardless, the music (including tunes written by Abiy Woldemariam and Jonovan Cooper) is terrific and Carlos Vargas’s neon-lit nocturnal cinematography is often truly arresting. It is a great advertisement for the Ethiopian jazz scene, which is definitely enough for your truly. However, the narrative and drama are thin and the pacing is ever so deliberately slow. This is indeed a long, slow goodbye.

Nobody (of reasonable mind and temperament) would judge you harshly is you decide
Melody of Love just is not for you. The music, the vibe, and the cinematography are all quite potent, but the rest of the conventional movie-kind of stuff is somewhat lacking. Mostly recommended for fans of international jazz and slow-ish cinema, Melody of Love screens again this Thursday (3/28), as part of AFI’s New Africa Film Festival.