TOPOWA! Never Give Up, 2020.
Directed by Inigo Gilmore and Philip Sansom.
A dozen young musicians from the slums of Uganda are given the opportunity to take their brass band to a major performance in the UK.
There’s a lot of talk in the UK right now about the value of the arts, with the current government espousing an attitude that is at best apathetic and, at worst, openly hostile to anyone who devotes their life to creativity. The general consensus is that, in a time of economic strife, the arts are not a priority – despite how much Netflix we’re all watching. Try telling that, though, to the young stars of the terrific new documentary TOPOWA! Never Give Up. For them, the arts are anything but frivolous.
The story unfolds mostly in Katwe – a deprived slum of the Ugandan capital Kampa – and follows a dozen young musicians, who work with charitable organisation Brass for Africa. Founded a decade ago by British airline pilot Jim Trott, the charity provides musical opportunities as well as life skills training for hundreds of children in various African nations. The main focus of the story is charismatic trombone player Julius, as well as boundary-pushing tuba player Summaya – a girl playing an instrument which is historically male-dominated even in the developed world – and Tadeo, who is able to play alto trombone to a high standard despite the fact he lost both legs and both hands in a fire.
Directing duo Inigo Gilmore and Philip Sansom deftly bring the audience into the heart of these characters’ worlds, focusing on their remarkable zest for life while existing in very tough circumstances. Their homes are in areas where clean water is far from a given and in which 50% of the population is under 14, with more than 70% of those kids lacking any access to welfare or education. When Julius tells the camera he “didn’t have hope before music”, you believe him.
But this is not a movie about the time before hope. It’s about optimism, excitement and the escapism music can provide in even the darkest of times. Julius, Summaya and their bandmates – including brilliant drummer Ivan and teen runaway turned trombone star Gilbert – have the opportunity to fly to Britain in order to perform a concert alongside legendary trumpet star Wynton Marsalis. It’s not often that residents of Katwe get the chance to rub shoulders with a man who has won at least nine Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.
Naturally, though, there are bumps on the journey. None of the kids have passports and Ugandan bureaucracy requires a certain amount of genealogy knowledge – something not always possible for some of the world’s poorest teenagers. Part of the movie features a genuinely tense race against time as Brass for Africa officials, band members and family fight to ensure that all of the musicians are able to board a plane and jet across the world. By the time TOPOWA! gets there, each of these kids has been sketched out so thoroughly that you want more than anything for them to succeed.
With that in mind, the movie becomes an emotional juggernaut as everything converges around this one trip – every hope, every ambition and every opportunity. The chance of roles in the British military presents the glimmer of escape, while the concert itself is a culmination of everything these kids have worked for. With few chances of a great life elsewhere, music becomes the centre of their existence and, by bringing us into their homes and their innermost lives, the documentary provides the audience with an intimate connection to each and every one of them. Their triumphs make us weep with joy and their setbacks make us froth with rage.
TOPOWA! is a love letter to music and creativity in the best possible way, showcasing how great art can, at its best, break down barriers between classes, cultures and levels of privilege. The mantra of the title becomes a rallying cry throughout the movie, which takes a group of people who could so easily have given up, but instead chose to embrace the opportunities provided to them and work their way up the seemingly endless ladder to success. It’s as uplifting and as optimistic as cinema, in this year from hell, can get.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.