Musical documentary looks at the African rabble-rouser who lit a fire under a hit Broadway musical
Directed by Alex Gibney
Plenty of musicians have been deemed worthy of the documentary/biopic treatment. And why not? They’re typically charismatic people. They’re creative. And they often live lives of envious excess. All of which is true of Nigerian singer/bandleader Fela Kuti. But where many talked the talk of rebellion, Fela lived it.
Starting in the early ’70s, Fela became a superstar back in his home country. And he gained a fair amount of respect worldwide before his death in 1997. But he came to real public attention here in the United States through an unusual venue for a multi-instrumentalist pioneer of Afrobeat: a hit Broadway musical. Starting off-Broadway and eventually nabbing 11 Tony Award nominations, co-creator/director/choreographer Bill T. Jones’ FELA! was a surprise smash more than a decade after its subject’s passing. And it forms the backbone of Alex Gibney’s documentary Finding Fela.
Gibney is an award-winning filmmaker in his own right, and his work (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Freakonomics, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, The Armstrong Lie) tends to look for the links between the social and the political. First and foremost, Finding Fela is a celebration of the man behind the music. It’s a dutiful documentary, recounting his life and his art. It features plenty of celebrity praise (including Sir Paul McCartney and Questlove). And there are loads of interviews with people who were there as it was happening. But using Jones’ musical is a stroke of brilliance.
This isn’t your typical behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway production. It’s not at all concerned with auditions or rehearsals or costumes or sets. Instead, it spends its time trying to get inside Jones’ head as he grapples with the central question of “Who was Fela Kuti?” He was, of course, a phenomenally talented musician, a pioneer who melded Western jazz with traditional African polyrhythm to create modern Afrobeat. He was a human rights activist and a political maverick who spoke out against his country’s institutional corruption and abuse of power. He was also a polygamist who married seven women at once and reveled in his heroic public image. Clearly, there was a lot to this cat.
Was he a liberal rabble-rouser or an old-fashioned misogynist? Was he a true man of the people, or did he get off on the martyr-like identity his frequent police clashes got him?
Finding Fela talks to the man’s former bandmates, a number of lifelong friends, his various wives and mistresses, several of his children—all in an attempt to get a handle on who he was. It’s a vivid image, well-aided by the mountains of archival footage Gibney has unearthed. Bouncing between the vibrant music of Jones’ stage musical and countless live concert performances by Fela himself, we get a clear idea of how captivating a performer he was. He was always backed by a massive band filled with drum and horn sections and surrounded by gyrating rows of scantily clad female dancers. On stage, stripped to the waist and drenched in sweat, he typically carried a saxophone in one hand and a giant spliff in the other. He performed nearly every night of the week at a club (or “church” as he called it) down the street from his massive private compound in Lagos. (We also begin to grasp Jones’ stress at trying to adapt songs that typically ran into 45-minute jam sessions.)
But Fela wasn’t simply a popular musician. All his songs were protest songs—every one of them aimed squarely at the people in power in postcolonial/post-civil war Nigeria. His battles with the Nigerian police were quite public and often very bloody. As a cultural figure he has never quite reached the level of Miles Davis, James Brown or Bob Marley—all of whom appear to have influenced and been influenced by Fela. But Gibney’s film certainly makes a strong case for his pop cultural sainthood. Transgressive as Davis or Marley were at times, they didn’t run giant musical communes regularly raided and burned to the ground by the government.
As evocative a portrait of the man as Finding Fela is, in the end the artist holds on to a lot of his secrets. Was he a liberal rabble-rouser or an old-fashioned misogynist? Was he a true man of the people, or did he get off on the martyr-like identity his frequent police clashes got him? This is, mind you, not a failing of the film but an acknowledgment that all great figures of history thrive on a bit of self-styled mystery.
Perhaps Gibney has cast his net too wide, giving us a start-to-finish assessment of Fela Kuti’s life, a truncated political history of 1970s Africa and a look at the creation of a hit Broadway musical. As a result Finding Fela is not what you’d call a distinctly stylish film. It’s more of a talking-head-and-archival-footage deal. But Gibney is smart enough to put his best foot forward in the form of his leading man (both the fictional Broadway version and the warts-and-all sex machine that set the clubs on fire back in the ’70s and ’80s). Any time Fela is on screen (which is often), he’s a mesmerizing, larger-than-life figure. Wanna know what all the fuss was about? Bend an ear and start here.
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