Title: Finding Fela
Director: Alex Gibney
Label: Kino Lorber
Release Date: January 13, 2015
Operating on the premise that Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afro-Pop pioneer, was somewhat unknown to American audiences until the Broadway musical “Fela!” opened in 2009, director Alex Gibney weaves extensive interviews and rehearsal footage from that production with a somewhat clipped and shallow biography of the actual Fela.
The result is an over-long documentary that underplays the revolutionary impact of the real Fela Kuti, both as a musical force and a political actor. The interviews with Kuti’s children touch on how much risk and abuse he endured in a stubborn quest to use popular music to upset and perhaps unseat the military dictators in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s. Fela sacrificed everything: his mother was thrown off a second-floor balcony by soldiers raiding his home, and she never fully recovered; his compound and recording studio were destroyed; and he was arrested and beaten numerous times, finally serving several years in a harsh prison. He never gave up, but eventually contracted AIDS as a result of his free-form lifestyle, and died at age 58 in 1997.
Fela Kuti’s real life provides plenty of grist for a great documentary, but instead we get half a film documenting the rehearsals, self-aggrandizing production talk and snippets of performances from the Broadway production. While this footage is visually compelling, it’s boring compared to the real Fela.
To “find” Fela, the fim crew should have stayed in Africa, included longer segments of Fela himself speaking (he was interviewed numerous times), and letting his children tell more about what Nigeria was like while Fela was alive and trying to effect change. It’s also worth noting that many American music fans don’t need to “find” Fela because we knew all about him, as the pioneer of Afro-Pop, a known and promoted EMI recording artist, a man whose music has often been discussed and sampled in the years after his death, a known and admired political activist, etc.
Reviewed by Tom Fine