There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Finding Fela.
It’s crazy to think that in the '70s and '80s Fela Anikulapo Kuti was maybe the second most famous African in the world, second only to Nelson Mandela, and somehow there are still massive swaths of folks here in the west with next to zero awareness of his work as a musician and activist. Alex Gibney’s film Finding Fela attempts to rectify that disconnect, and does an admirable enough job tackling that impossible task. The finished product ends up working more as a place for folks to dip their toes into the rushing river of his body of work than a comprehensive examination of Fela, but you gotta start somewhere, right?
I went into this film with not a whole lot of knowledge of Fela’s past. Most of my info on the man comes from his tangential role in Beware of Mr. Baker, the Ginger Baker film we looked at in this here column a couple of weeks back. Sadly, while Fela played such a huge role in Mr. Baker’s life, the inverse influence is apparently not proportional so far as the filmmakers are concerned. What we do get though, is a whole lot of behind the scenes footage of Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis’s broadway musical Fela! that notably snatched up a few Tony Awards back in 2010. While the musical is interesting in and of itself, its narrative thread throughout the documentary works to muddle more than amplify the larger story of Fela, which is uniquely strange, politically volatile, and above all non stop-junk-in-the-trunk thumpin funky.
I’d like to think that it was just some soulful serendipity that the same year he released Finding Fela, Alex Gibney also dropped Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown. Both men were imposing bandleaders who were known to fine musicians for infractions, both men were looked up to as cultural leaders for their people, and both were undeniable groove geniuses, but if you stretch the comparison much further it gets wobbly. Fela was a political entity in Nigeria, pointing fingers and naming names when he preached his anti-apartheid gospel on a weekly basis from the pulpit of his own personal dancehall, when he wasn’t driving the masses to orgiastic bliss with extended takes on his already lengthy album cuts. He was arrested and beaten by police, his home was bombed, and his mother was thrown to her death from the second floor of Fela’s apartment during a police raid. We see footage in Finding Fela from another documentary, 1982’s Music Is The Weapon, where Fela shows off the dozens of scars he’s gotten from police beatings over the years, but through it all Fela never stopped representing his role as a voice of the people.
For all his great works, Finding Fela touches on (but more or less immediately glosses over) some of the less than impressive aspects of Fela’s personality including his faith in the voodoo huckster “Professor Hindu” whose shenanigans got Fela tossed in jail for over a year, and Fela’s reckless womanizing which inarguably led to his death in 1997 from the AIDS virus. To be fair, it’s not just Gibney who breezes past these unsavory bits, since the Broadway director also admits it was much easier to ignore those aspects of Kuti’s life altogether rather than present a warts and all telling of his story. Given the clear complexities that Fela Kuti’s story presents to pretty much any biographer or documentarian, Finding Fela does a fair job of breaking the seal on who Fela was and the cultural environment that he rose to fame thanks to, and in spite of. This is a guy who put out eight albums in 1977 alone, after all, so you could probably watch three documentaries and still feel like you’re just beginning to grasp at the top of an iceberg, but rest assured it’s worth finding out what’s below the surface.
Next week we’ll be getting to know the most successful men in pop music concert promoter and tour producer in (earmuffs!) Who the F**k is Arthur Fogel?!
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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