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January 08, 2015

Finding Fela


Alex Gibney - 2014
Kino Lorber BD Region A

It's been about thirty years so my memories about this are a bit fuzzy, but my introduction to Fela Kuti took place at Denver's Film Festival. I handled the physical presentation of 3/4 inch video tapes of Kuti in concert. This was somewhere around the time that Talking Head's album, "Remain in Light", came out, and there were several artists incorporating African music into rock music, the genre that was dubbed Afrobeat. Since the tapes were shown at the theaters in the Tivoli 12 multiplex, the walls didn't do too much to prevent the music from bleeding into the adjacent theaters. If you really wanted to enjoy Kuti's music, it was best to play it reasonably loud.

Alex Gibney's documentary might actually work best for those with some familiarity with Kuti, rather than those encountering his music for the first time. Gibney cuts between some chronology of Kuti's life, the real talking heads, people who knew Kuti over the years, and choreographer-director Bill T. Jones' efforts to bring a musical about Kuti to the Broadway stage.

For those familiar with Gibney's past work as documentarian, Kuti's life and music is as politically charged as any of Gibney's past subjects. The film is partially a history of Nigeria, primarily its post-colonial history, given to a succession of dictators, and an oil based economy that has favored a select handful. Kuti was the son of a nationally known Protestant minister and educator, and a feminist mother. Not mentioned in the film are that Kuti has two brothers, bother medical doctors, or that he is first cousin to the Nobel Prize winning author, Wole Soyinka.

There is some comparison of Kuti with Bob Marley, in that both used the popular music native to their respective countries to address social issues. Also, both charismatic men had several "wives" simultaneously, Kuti going so far as to marry twenty-seven women at once. As a reaction to the lack of real democracy in Nigeria, Kuti and his large entourage of musicians, dancers and support lived in a compound named the Kalakuta Republic, for Kuti, an independent state within Nigeria.

Gibney incorporates a section of the 1982 documentary, Music is a Weapon, in which Kuti shows off the various scars received following his arrest and imprisonment following the release of "Zombie", an album containing songs critical of the Nigerian military. There are also excerpts of Kuti and his ensembles in concert, though not enough of them, as well as excerpts from the Broadway show.

I'm not sure if Fela Kuti is really "found" here. The various parts give hints regarding the life, music, politics and contradictions, with some discussion of his musical influence. There is a sense, for me, of incompleteness. Perhaps the inclusion of Jones and his staged tribute may have been an attempt to make Kuti relevant almost two decades after his death. For myself, the best way to find Fela is to let the music speak (or sing) for itself.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 8, 2015 06:42 AM