REVIEW BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti, is regarded as the father of Afrobeat. As pioneered by Fela, Afrobeat was not a mere genre of music. It was steeped in Pan-Africanism. Moreover, Afrobeat was used as a vehicle to challenge the oppressive dictatorial government of Nigeria during the 1970’s and 1980’s. “Finding Fela” searches for the complex and eminently imperfect man behind the music.
The film provides an interesting perspective on the childhood background of the composer/singer/dancer/political provocateur. He was born to one of Nigeria’s most prominent families. They included leading anti-colonialists. His father was Reverend Israel Olodutun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister and school principal. After independence from Great Britain, he became the first President of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was a political campaigner and feminist activist, who was the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria. She met with various leaders of Communist bloc countries, including Chairman Mao Tse-tung. The film fails to delineate the full extent of her accomplishments. She had founded the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies. In addition, for many years, she was a member of the ruling National Council of Nigerian and the Cameroons Party.
Fela did not come to music until his late twenties. He had moved to London purportedly to study medicine, like his two older brothers. However, Fela soon abandoned his medical pursuits in favor of music.
Eventually, Fela returned to Nigeria, where he became the principal proponent of the Afrobeat movement. The content of his songs turned from standard love lyrics to highly charged political content. He berated the leaders of the country’s military dictatorship.
Fela created a club, known as the Afro-Spot, which was subsequently renamed as the Afrika Shrine He also established a commune in Lagos, which he dubbed the Kalakuta Republic.
In 1977, he released a scathing album, “Zombie,” Fela invoked the metaphorical imagery of zombiehood to denounce the tactics of Nigerian military juntas. When the album became a smash hit, the government responded with a vicious attack, dispatching a thousand troops to Afrika Shrine and Kalakuta Republic. They beat up Fela and many of his followers. Fela’s elderly mother was thrown from an upstairs window to her death. Both the Afrika Shrine and the Kalakuta Republic were razed.
Rather than back down, Fela escalated his attacks on the government. He marched with supporters to the Dodan Barracks, the official residence of then president, General Olugeson Obasanjo. They carried the coffin of Fela’s mother. Fela released additional songs, which aggressively attacked the government. Later, he twice attempted to run for president. However, each time, his candidacy was disallowed.
One of the themes which the film broaches is whether Fela was consumed with pathological self-destructive tendencies or even mental illness. He often issued hyperbolic statements, including his insistence that he carried death with him in a pouch and therefore could not be killed. Was it bravura rhetoric or a manifestation of delusional thinking?
In recent years, Fela has experienced a wide-spread revival. This culminated with the re-release of Fela’s catalogue by Universal Music and the opening of the Broadway play, “Fela!” Documentarian, Alex Gibney, has capitalized on the newfound interest in Fela to mount this film.
“Fela” represents another impressive addition to Gibney’s oeuvre. Gibney won the 2007 Academy Award for his acclaimed documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about an innocent cab driver who was tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Since then, he wrote and directed such compelling documentaries as “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks;” “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” and “The Armstrong Lie,” about disgraced bicyclist Lance Armstrong.
As with his prior films, Gibney has done an excellent job of aggregating a treasure trove of archival documentary footage. He seamlessly merges this with contemporaneous footage from the Broadway play, “Fela!” His interview segments with Bill T. Jones, the show’s director, prove particularly perspicacious. Jones frankly broaches his ambivalence towards some of Fela’s less laudable actions. Front and center is the fact that Fela continued to practice unprotected sex after he became HIV positive. Fela is castigated for his demeaning treatment of women and members of his performance troupe.
“Finding Fela” also includes interviews with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer from The Roots and record producer; Sir Paul McCartney; Sandra Izsadore, Fela’s erstwhile paramour, who introduced him to the Black Power movement; his daughter, Yeni, who is the manager of the New Africa Shrine, as well as Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun, both of whom are musicians.
Throughout the film, Fela is compared with American soul singer, James Brown, whose music was also used as a vehicle for promoting a sociocultural ideology, the Black Pride movement. Although Fela has attracted a passionate cult following, he failed to achieve Brown’s worldwide commercial success and recognition. By sheer coincidence, the documentary “Finding Fela”, is playing simultaneously with the narrative film, “Get On Up,” a biopic on Brown. By way of further coincidence, Gibney is currently working on “Mr. Dynamite,” a documentary on Brown.
“Finding Fela” is a fascinating documentary. Fans of Fela will revel in hearing his extended musical riffs and witnessing his larger than life persona. Those encountering Fela for the first time will likely wonder why he is not better known by cultural aesthetes outside of the African continent. The film proffers an answer by quoting a record label executive, who glibly asked, “Which three minutes of that twenty-eight do you want me to put on the radio?”
“Finding Fela” does an excellent job of framing the contradictions inherent in its subject. However, despite its best efforts, “Finding Fela” frustratingly fails to unravel the enigma of this elusive figure.
*** No MPAA rating 120 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lerner email@example.com.