Finding Fela!


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Fela Anikulapo Kuti
"Though Gibney’s film has an interesting figure at its heart, the film never really feels like it is giving either strand of Kuti’s life: the music and the politics, enough attention." | Photo: Stein Kertechian

Alex Gibney is well known for making documentaries that explore the use and acquisition of power, be it through powerful figures or institutions. His recent film Mea Maxima Culpa was an excoriating demolition of the Vatican and its silence on the issue of child sexual abuse. Finding Fela!, finds Gibney painting a more sympathetic portrait of his subject; the Nigerian singer and political activist Fela Kuti. Somewhat by the numbers in its construction, Gibney’s film certainly transmits a sense of how interesting and important Kuti was, but lacks the punch of Mea Maxima, which had a huge target in its sights and was formally more striking in its use of re-enactments and by having it’s interviewees (many of whom were deaf) sign to the camera with no added voiceover.

Gibney approaches telling the story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s life and his musical, social and political importance through a framing device of a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the 2009 New York play Fela! The dilemmas of how to portray Kuti on stage faced by the play’s producer Bill T Jones are offered up as a prism through which to view Kuti’s complex legacy. Jones is seen at numerous points mulling over how Kuti comes across decades after his death to a New York 2009 audience. He was a “transgressive son of a bitch, if not a likeable one,” says Jones at one point, while one of his production associates comments that there was something “insane” about the man. For Jones and his team, one of the many issues that complicate the heroic image of Fela Kuti is his polygamous activities which continued even after he had contracted HIV and proceeded to develop AIDS (which ultimately caused his death in 1997, despite his refusal to countenance the idea that he was infected). His troublingly conservative views on female-male relationships and his late stage veering into areas of huckster spiritualism, they muse, also might not chime well with today’s audiences.

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Intercut with footage of the production of the play is a chronological retelling of Kuti’s life story. This proceeds as one would expect from a Gibney film: drawing from news articles, contemporary footage and present day interviews with, among others, Kuti’s colleague and jazz drummer Tony Allen, Fela’s children, eyewitnesses, academics, and admiring musicians like The Root’s Questlove.

Kuti was no real activist in his youth, growing up in Nigeria’s elite after his birth in 1938, despite coming from a highly educated family involved in anti-colonial activities. He grew up soaked in Christian and liturgical music, which several interviewees believe gave his music that edge of levity. He failed to pursue a medical career like his siblings, and drifted into jazz whilst enduring a boring classical music course in London in the late Fifties. Returning to Nigeria, he set up a small band to continue his beloved jazz, but it didn’t catch on. In concert with musical collaborators like Allen, Kuti hit on the notion of fusing the then-popular highlife style with jazz, while also acknowledging the growing popularity of soul music and its figurehead: James Brown. Afrobeat was born.

Despite his reputation as a fierce critic of the Nigerian military dictatorship that emerged after that country’s terrible civil war in the Sixties, Fela seems to have been initially ignorant of political issues and black awakening movements that were stirring. Afro-american author, musician and activist Sandra Izsadore, one of most intriguing of the talking heads Gibney assembles, recalls that when Kuti spent eight months in LA in the US in the late Sixties, it was she who introduced him to the writings and politics of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and other proponents of Black nationalism and Afrocentrism. When she first met Kuti he wasn't singing about black power, he was simply “singing about his soup”.

Gibney’s film tracks how Kuti stepped into the moral and political gap left in Nigeria as the country was turned upside down by the discovery of oil resources, and the inequality and corruption that spread from this. His house in Lagos became something of a liberal retreat and commune as his fame grew, where Kuti enjoyed polygamous relationships with as many as 27 brides, to the frustration of his first wife and the confusion of his children, who speak frankly about what it was like living with a man who had to have a schedule board in the house marking out when certain wives could see him. The storming of the compound in 1977, the brutal attacks on his comrades and the related death of his mother, all by government forces, pushed Kuti into outright opposition.

It is certainly hard not to be impressed by Kuti’s fortitude during this time. He was arrested more than 200 times, eventually serving an 18-month sentence in jail for a currency violation. Yet he made a staggering 70 albums, despite the harassment and the knowledge that he could have at any point left Nigeria and led the life of an international music superstar whilst campaigning from abroad.

Though Gibney’s film has an interesting figure at its heart, the film never really feels like it is giving either strand of Kuti’s life: the music and the politics, enough attention. The framing scenes showing the 2009 play eat up the screen time with Kuti feeling pushed to the background. Kuti himself doesn’t clearly come across via his own words as much as might be expected in terms of interview material. Maybe Gibney wants us left feeling that Kuti was an enigma, or maybe he wants us to see Kuti more on stage, in his element, as opposed to in an interview chair. The concert footage is by far the highlight of the film; wild, visceral affairs with Kuti prowling the stage, topless and smoking, as dancers gyrate around him. His songs, which could run over twenty minutes, are pulsing and hypnotic, and far more appealing than the film built around them.

Reviewed on: 15 Sep 2014
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Finding Fela! packshot
Documentary about a renowned Nigerian Musician who inspired many people in the music scene including Bob Marley and James Brown.
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