Screeds of change
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.