Screeds of change

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Bill Kohlhaase The New Mex­i­can

Find­ing Fela, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, The Screen, 2.5 chiles

IFela Aniku­lapo Kuti, the Nige­rian mu­si­cian and band­leader said to have fash­ioned Afrobeat mu­sic from a mix of high­life, Nige­rian juju, and Amer­i­can funk, was a com­pli­cated, ob­sessed, and of­ten an­gry fig­ure. His mu­sic took a turn in 1970 when he re­turned to Nige­ria af­ter sev­eral months in Los An­ge­les. He be­gan in­cor­po­rat­ing more funk and jazz into his mu­sic while re­tain­ing its polyrhyth­mic African roots. In the United States, Fela was in­flu­enced by such fig­ures as James Bald­win and Eldridge Cleaver, his lyrics com­ing to fo­cus more on the po­lit­i­cal strug­gles of post­colo­nial Africa against cor­rup­tion, poverty, and mil­i­tary bru­tal­ity — es­pe­cially within his own coun­try.

The first half-hour of Alex Gib­ney’s Find­ing Fela seems more about the ge­n­e­sis of Bill T. Jones’ suc­cess­ful Broad­way mu­si­cal Fela! — its sub­ject lost be­hind scenes and mu­sic from the play. This is the only part of the film when its ti­tle makes sense. Is this the real Fela? On a New York stage, play­ing sax, smok­ing a spliff, spout­ing po­lit­i­cal crit­i­cism, drag­ging his wives around by their hair? Even­tu­ally the nar­ra­tive set­tles into the fire­brand mu­si­cian’s rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal stances and what was be­hind them. The film be­comes a doc­u­ment of courage as we see Fela’s fame and in­flu­ence on his coun­try­men grow.

Gib­ney, whose credits in­clude En­ron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side, is prac­ticed at seam­lessly in­sert­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate talk­ing head at the mo­ment when some idea needs de­vel­op­ing. He does a good job of pre­sent­ing the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion Fela faced through­out the ’70s, oc­ca­sion­ally us­ing dis­turb­ing, even hor­ri­fy­ing scenes to ac­com­pany Fela’s al­most mat­ter-of-fact ac­counts of beat­ings at the hands of the au­thor­i­ties. What Gib­ney doesn’t have is ex­ten­sive footage of Fela on­stage dur­ing this pe­riod. Most of the ex­tended mu­si­cal takes and sax so­los come from the play. Fela’s per­for­mance at the 1978 Ber­lin Jazz Fes­ti­val, af­ter which much of his band quit due to ru­mors that he in­tended to use the pro­ceeds to fund his quest to be­come pres­i­dent of Nige­ria, is well rep­re­sented. But mostly we’re left to won­der at the se­ries of mythic shows held at “the shrine” near Fela’s La­gos com­pound.

Gib­ney ex­plores Fela’s bla­tant sex­ism — al­ready wed and with chil­dren, he once mar­ried 27 women in a sin­gle cer­e­mony — but ig­nores his con­tro­ver­sial stand on fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion, a po­si­tion that cost him sup­port in the United States and Europe. The best parts of the film are when the rhythms come puls­ing up be­hind the words and in scenes de­voted to Fela’s in­fec­tious Afro-grooves, whether from archival footage or from the play. The pas­sion’s in the mu­sic.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.