Read two critical perspectives on Finding Fela! (2014, Alex Gibney) , from Michael Fox and Angeline Rodriguez. Finding Fela! opens at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, and the Shattuck Theatre in Berkeley on Friday, August 15, 2014.
FINDING FELA!: Fela’s Legacy Survives Gibney’s Compromises
by Michael Fox
In the pantheon of musical giants who’ve knocked on heaven’s door, I imagine Fela Anikulapo Kuti still strutting, glowering and rabble-rousing to his own beat. The Nigerian composer, saxophonist, singer and bandleader was a nonconformist of the first order—he married his harem of 27 wives in one grand ceremony, in an act of remarkable hubris—with the courage (and ego) to speak out in song against the military regime that corruptly ruled Nigeria. Like Joe Strummer, he deserves and should inspire a documentary as vital and uncompromising as he was.
Finding Fela! is enjoyable and informative as far as it goes, but it can’t carry Julien Temple’s The Future is Unwritten ‘s spliff. The latest documentary by cultural imperialist Alex Gibney (the ersatz pop archivist of Julian Assange, Hunter Thompson, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Eliot Spitzer, Jack Abramoff, Lance Armstrong and soon—heaven help us—James Brown), Finding Fela! is too formulaic, and too mediated, to incite the masses and unsettle the status quo. Is that too much to ask of a documentary? Of course. But if Fela (who was born in 1938 and died of AIDS in 1997) doesn’t heat your blood enough to draw a little blood, leave him for a filmmaker with the requisite passion.
Few doc makers, however, can match Gibney in raising the coin to clear music rights and archival footage. Consequently, Fela’s journey is pleasurably illustrated and soundtracked to the nth degree. Even at two hours, though, the film feels superficial and bloated, perhaps because Fela’s voice is continually diluted by a coterie of admittedly interesting associates (such as drummer and bandleader Tony Allen) and academic experts.
Gibney’s oddest decision is to incorporate a Broadway musical biography of Fela directed by famed choreographer Bill T. Jones. Why Gibney thinks we would want to see a (talented) interpreter of Fela rather than more performance footage of the icon himself defies reason. Jones’ comments and analysis of Fela’s character are thought-provoking, but ultimately one gets the impression that Gibney was stumped about how to convey the musician’s contemporary relevance and settled on Jones and “Fela! ” as a crutch.
Fela went to college in London in the early 1960s, where he studied classical music and hung out at night in the jazz clubs. Back in Nigeria, he eventually figured out how to meld African and Western music—highlife and jazz—into percolating, popular dance music. Along came James Brown, and Fela took that cue to combine jazz, soul and funk into Afrobeat. Massive record sales and superstardom followed, propelling Fela to where he felt he was above the law.
He established a compound called Kalakuta Republic in a poor part of Lagos that employed and housed a couple hundred people. It was a psychological, if not physical act of secession, and it got the attention of the police and military. The combination of fearless independence and lyrics criticizing Nigeria’s rulers led to Fela’s arrest and several beatings, which did nothing to silence him.
“Music cannot be for enjoyment,” he once said. “Music has to be for revolution.”
A phenomenal artist and performer, and a man of steadfast (and occasionally bizarre) principles, Fela Kuti’s immortality is assured no matter how many or few Westerners see Finding Fela . That said, the documentary is a perfectly fine entry point for anyone unfamiliar with his music and life. Unfortunately, it’s not a film that will rock your world.
Michael Fox is a longtime film critic, journalist and teacher. He also curates and hosts the Friday night CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics Institute in downtown San Francisco.
FINDING FELA!: Music Is the Weapon
by Angeline Rodriguez
If music is the weapon, then Fela Ransome Kuti was an atom bomb. Best known as the father of afrobeat, a heady fusion of jazz, funk, soul, and Ghanaian ‘highlife,’ Fela used those tantalizing grooves and exuberant polyrhythms to launch his own revolution against the military regimes of 1970s Nigeria. His politically charged pidgin lyrics developed in the tiny Afrika Shrine nightclub but soon came to be heard all over the world, inspiring a bevy of new musical genres, Pan-African activism, the Tony-award-winning jukebox musical “Fela!”, and documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest film..
At first glance Finding Fela seems like an unlikely addition to Gibney’s controversial repertoire. After such hard-hitting titles as Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room , and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side , the story of Fela Kuti and his Broadway replica sounds toothless by comparison – what is there to ‘find’ about a man who embraced the spotlight?
As it turns out, the Fela story is hardly easy listening. While his ostentatious taste for womanizing, comically large spliffs, and lime-green jumpsuits might overshadow the less glamorous parts of his life, Gibney juxtaposes the razzle-dazzle with unvarnished documentation of a man struggling to combat authority. Exuberant concert footage and lively Broadway dance numbers are only one side of the story, and soon give way to grisly shots of the Nigerian Civil War, the shattered aftermath of police raids on Fela’s communal home, the scars of beatings unobscured by sequined ensembles.
Nor does Gibney skirt the many contradictions that might tarnish some of Fela’s celebrity shine. The documentary shows us a Fela who campaigned tirelessly for human rights but treated his twenty-seven ‘brides’ as chattel, who presided over his commune with kinglike hedonism but couldn’t pay his musicians for months, who was the well-educated son of accomplished intellectuals but believed only the ministrations of his personal magician would cure his AIDS. As “Fela!” costume designer Marina Draghici mused, it never becomes entirely clear whether we are dealing with “a saint or a crazy man.” The many faces of Fela Kuti are elaborated on by just as many talking head testimonies, which Gibney provides in spades. The comprehensive panel numbers around twenty-strong and ranges from “Fela!” director Bill T. Jones to former lover and Black Panther Sandra Iszadore (née Smith) to New York Times correspondent John Darnton, interspersed with pointillist granularity between scenes from the Broadway production, interview and concert footage from Fela’s previous film Music is the Weapon (1982), and a ‘dynasty of album covers’ that mark various points in his discography.
The result is a mosaic-like picture of not just Fela’s life but the legacy he left, broken up amongst many different points of view. The effect is thorough but dizzying; one leaves the film suspecting they might have missed the forest for the trees. Much like the vamp-heavy, dense rhythms of the afrobeat that plays throughout the film, Finding Fela! tends to meander and repeat itself. But it’s hard to imagine the story of a man who was a musical genius, revolutionary, and mystic by turns fitting into a simpler format, and Gibney’s multimodal approach is an effective one. As Roots bandleader Questlove comments, “the more something repeats, the more it affects you.”
Fela Kuti music is available from Amazon via our affiliate code.
Angeline Rodriguez is an Educational Programs intern at 826 Valencia and amateur culture sponge. When she isn’t sopping up puddles of obscure trivia or listening for Wilhelm screams, she studies linguistics at Middlebury College and dreams of being Levar Burton’s successor.