‘Neptune Frost’ Review: Kaleidoscopic Afrofuturist Musical Is a Beautiful Mess

Shot in Burundi with an inventive DIY aesthetic, Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's anti-capitalist manifesto is a sensory delight.
"Neptune Frost"
"Neptune Frost"
Kino Lorber

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 New York Film Festival. Kino Lorber releases the film in theaters on Friday, June 3.

If the noblest aim of the artist is to become a vessel for divine connection to creative source, then Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman are truly touched. The sheer amount of hypnotic imagery and music on display in “Neptune Frost,” the film chapter in the multifaceted project “MartyrLoserKing” which includes three albums and a graphic novel, is bursting with enough life and ingenuity to fill a solo exhibition.

In this fantastical Afrofuturist universe, characters with names like Memory and Psychology traipse amongst whimsical sculptural sets, draped in art-piece costumes and makeup so eye-popping it makes the looks on “Euphoria” seem conventional. The music is alive and thrumming, tapped into a twin spirit of joy and protest. While these elements never fully cohere to form a discernible narrative in “Neptune Frost,” there is fun to be had in surrendering to the fluidity of its ingenuity.

Filmed in the hills of Burundi, the dreamlike tale loosely follows a group of gentle hackers building community in hiding following a resource war. A singing wanderer, who glides between male and female with the click of their heels, is guided by magnetic pull to the outcast enclave. The film bounces between the wanderer, Neptune, and the hackers, who seem indelibly connected through shared visions. “My mother and father were binary stars,” they sing, describing the sun as a fire in the sky, in an origin-of-the-world number that feels — at least lyrically — descended from Hedwig’s “The Origin of Love.”

The preferred greeting in this colorful alternate universe is “Unanimous Goldmine,” a repeated refrain which never reveals its full meaning. Occasionally someone asks, “How is it?”, to which the other person replies, “Shining.” Though opaque in meaning, these are clearly meant to reference the Coltan mining community where the film begins. Coltan is a mineral used in many electronic devices, including the iPhone. Eighty percent of the world’s supply of Coltan is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Neptune Frost
“Neptune Frost”Courtesy of Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman

Crossing through an invisible force field, Neptune (AKA The Motherboard) finally reaches the hacker community, igniting the power they’ve been desperately seeking. Once reconnected with their beloved mainframe, the people’s dependence on technology is skewered in a triumphant dirge-like chant: “Five billion followers,” and “I own the internet,” they scream.

Though mostly in translation except for a few lines, the lyrics in “Neptune Frost” range from inspired poetry to heavy-handed diatribe. There’s this heartbreaking offer of exposition: “The war forced us into other dimensions, where the worst has already happened.” Or the tragic existentialism of: “To imagine hell is a privilege.” These bursts of eloquence transport the viewer into another’s experience, shaking us out of our Western apathy with an elegant refrain. At other times, the lyrics can be quite clunky. “Fuck Mr. Google” is certainly a valid sentiment, but it lacks the nuance of “Technology is only a reflection of us.”

The playful costumes, by the Rwandan artist Cedric Mizero, belong in a museum. A textured keyboard cloak, made entirely of black keys from a desktop keyboard, is a brilliant repurposing of technological detritus. A flock of singing gardener women are shrouded in white, their soft conical headdresses turning them into protective alien goddesses. In a discordant act of rebellion, the policemen wear bright pink shirts and wire mesh face guards. If not for their prop guns, they’d look like stylish club kids.

The set should have been preserved as an installation piece, with teepee-like structures spotted with upturned baskets and a panel of analog TVs that could have been a Nam June Paik house.

“Neptune Frost” has attracted the attention of a wide array of creatives. The film counts Ezra Miller, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the artist Kara Walker among its producers. Transmitting a massive download of ideas into one film, there’s no doubt that Williams and Uzeyman have creativity to spare, and they deserve all the support they can get to share it with the world. When you’re this close to the divine, the medium is a pretty-enough message.

Grade: B-

“Neptune Frost” screened at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

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