Finding Fela! tells the story of Fela Kuti’s life, his music, his social and political importance. He created a new musical movement, Afrobeat, using that forum to express his revolutionary political opinions against the dictatorial Nigerian government of the 1970s and 1980s.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: From its opening salvo, which shows African music legend Fela Kuti in typically vocal mood at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival, Alex Gibney’s latest feature doc understandably seeks to illustrate the man’s remarkable ability at connecting with his audience. Having gained access to an impressive array of archive material – much of it from the 1970s and 1980s – one is certainly never in doubt as to the man’s charismatic stage presence and powerful public persona off it.
Finding Fela – which debuted at Sundance in January – has a harder time in concisely examining its subject’s motivations, beyond the political domain. Stretched across a two-hour, rambling narrative, which frustratingly leaps from (admittedly riveting) archive material to Gibney’s trademark talking-heads to ill-fitting rehearsal and performance footage of the Broadway show Gibney uses as his hook, Finding Fela struggles to do just that. By the close, we’re left wanting Gibney to re-edit the piece, ditching the stage re-enactments for more indepth analysis of the man as a musician, not to mention the reasons for his voracious appetites. The film could have been merely topped and tailed by the Broadway show, rather than continually interrupted by it.
Still, for all its jarring cuts and lack of focus – one of the few flaws that can be leveled at the ever-prolific Gibney, whose level of output continues to astonish –Finding Fela certainly presents Kuti as the musical firestorm that he was. At the peak of his powers, in 1977, the nation’s oil-rich military regime – one of many to have ruled with an iron first after the nation descended into post-colonial civil war – mounted a concerted effort to put the fear of god in him. Reports claim up to 1,000 soldiers stormed Kuti’s compound – a commune, in fact, housing dozens of wives, friends and hangers on – and viciously beat its inhabitants, including Kuti’s mother, who later died.
These brutal atrocities – and a later prison sentence, supposedly for embezzling funds, on the eve of his US debut at the Hollywood Bowl – only made Kuti’s rage grow, his outstpokenness at the corruption of the military regimes more pointed, more acute. His status as the people’s hero is evident, when the main sports stadium in Lagos is required for the enormous crowds that wish to bade him farewell, when he lies briefly in state, dead at 58 due to AIDS.
Although Gibney’s film does interview Kuti’s family, friends and former girlfriends, it is left to Fela! Musical director Bill T Jones to express disdain and dismay at Kuti’s rampant, unprotected sexual exploits, which presumably and unwittingly infected the women he was sleeping with. At one point, Kuti marries 27 of his girlfriends, such is the extent of his hedonism and sexism, which sits awkwardly with his impassioned public speaking, dedication to his craft – his stage performances are electrifying – and a clearly priviledged upbringing (his mother carried the anti-establishment gene, it would seem, while his father was an equally respected political figure). More stranger still, Jones’s musical itself mentions nothing of Kuti’s death, nor of the events leading up to it, merely maintaining the myth of the man at the height of his success.
Gibney is already finishing off another music-related doc: Mr Dynamite, about soul legend James Brown, aka the hardest working man in showbusiness (which, as some observers have already noted, is aptly being made by the hardest working man in documentaries). That, too, by all accounts, is somewhat lacking in scope, avoiding the very public fall from grace that Brown suffered at the tail end of his equally remarkable life. Finding Fela doesn’t shy from the uglier side of Kuti’s life, but it does lack the analysis one is craving and expecting to go with it. Equally, some weighty insight into his musical legacy – Paul McCartney, fleetingly glimpsed giving Kuti the trademark thumbs up, adds little – is also needed. Kuti is clearly a fascinating subject, and one that requires a more measured approach on screen.