Walk into must-see, Finding Fela, Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s sprawling yet painstakingly comprehensive study of inspired super-star and social activist, Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, and you will emerge dancing and thinking and playing his music ever after. This insanely talented performer who lived an outrageous personal life left a legacy of crazy-wonderful music and a message of political integrity for everyone to live by. Special performances with members of the cast and the Alex Gibney are posted in theatre listings.
Gibney’s gift of a sensational film introduces Fela in context. A political, musical legend in Nigeria Fela became a cult figure but never an international commercial success because his compositions are so long. His answer: “have you heard of Beethoven and Bach? Would you shorten their works?” He also lived In Lagos in an open commune of his creation close to the venue he built, The Shrine. Nightly walks with entourage from home to work turned into fabled parades. He rarely left Nigeria once he was educated in London and made a couple of trips to the United States in 1970. Tours to Paris and Berlin came in later years when he was desperate for money. It’s telling that he expanded his usual band of 21 to 70 so he could get more performers paid.
“Musicians are created by their talent and their times” is a line early in Finding Fela. Gibney’s extraordinarily comprehensive film footage of Fela’s concerts and personal life document that statement, enhanced by the artwork of Nigerian Lemi Ghariokwu Aiodun, whose work is on Fela’s album covers. Choreographer, Bill T. Jones, is also shown as he creates the character in the play, “Fela.”
Gibney first presents the stunning Fela in concert, asking the audience to put aside any preconceived notions about Africa. Then he answers with the film.
Finding Fela is pure magic. Fela is dazzling in trancelike performance. His costumes, music and lithe dancer's body far surpass those in the play, “Fela!” Even on film you feel the lifeblood cursing through every note of the big band music that ripples out multilayered fusion of jazz, funk, soul, through West African conga drums, saxophones, loud guitar and horn heavy highlife and Yoruban chantsFela melds African traditions with African-American and Afro-Caribbean influences in the form of Christian hymns, classical music and jazz: timeless, familiar, original.
Fela, who mastered a range of instruments, moves freely from one to another onstage easily, happily. A couple of his musicians laughed when they reported that he knew exactly what each performer was doing on stage at all times... Fela had his eyes on them as much as on the audience.
It was a late start at the age of 19. Gibney describes how Fela Kuti came to music by way of being a poor student, a “dunce” in an over-achieving middle class family. Even his Trinity College in London music class transcripts are marked FAIL. And played so badly at a local club that he made a friend carry out his instrument case so no one would recognize him afterward. But he got his bearings, and the first taste of what it meant even as a middle class African to be singled out as a Black in a white society. It became the base of his evolution from band music to a form of jazz and highlife stage performance, the main rhythms with complex underlying ones, from his first band Koola Lobitos, through his never ending evolution. Yet no matter how sophisticated Fela’s music became, he kept in the local pidgin English and the danceability in order to connect with his fans.
In 1967, he traveled to Ghana to think up a new musical direction and named his music, Afrobeat – which took hold in Africa and everywhere in the world he traveled, including Los Angeles in 1969. Friend, admirer and concert tour promoter, ALJ Kamal Foster, who lived in Nigeria and visited the kala kuta commune frequently, confirmed. “He spoke truth to power. AfroBeat no go die.” Foster, who was a promoter when Fela first came to Los Angeles and who, with wife Nancy, served as special ambassadors for the play, "Fela," when it came to Los Angeles, visited Fela's kala kuta commune in Lagos frequently.Another guest at a special screening testified that it was Fela giving out money and food to him as a needy kid that first inspired him to become a musician and later play in Fela's band.
It was on this American trip that he met up with James Brown and his “I’m Black and I’m Proud” political message through music, though he spent much more time learning from jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. He also met future partner, Sandra Smith Izsadore, who introduced him to the Black Power movement and influenced him to use “music as a weapon.” The message in the music was carried in Fela's bands, Africa 70 and later Egypt 80. Back at home Fela the political activist continued to use his music to rail against government corruption and rile up Nigeria’s military government with his instinctive (rather than ideological) politics until they beat him, jail him and burn down the Kalakuta Republic, his freewheeling commune.
At the Shrine, one night a week was a fun “ladies’ night,” one night was devoted to audience talks about politics. Fela took notes and wrote luminous songs on the spot. One of his most famous was the 25-minute ITT (International Thief –Thief) Fela, who is often compared to Bob Marley was actually more a musical evolutionary like Miles Davis – his music becoming more and more complex and yet simpler to the ear.
Musicians weighing in about Fela’s influence in the Finding Fela? Who needs more than Paul McCartney simply describing his own life-transforming experience watching Fela perform in Nigeria, how he just sat and cried in his seat afterward.
Gibney’s inspired choice to use musicians to explain the compositions as well as how each fit into the evolution of Fela's output augment the music even more. They even use their own voices as illustrative instruments. The splendid Michael E. Veal, Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Yale University who played as a guest saxophonist with Fela and his band Egypt 80 is extraordinary, and has written books on Fela. Thoughtful, analytical, Tony Allen, was Fela’s drummer for years – and Veal describes Allen’s exclusive and extraordinary skills, too. Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson of ROOTS (Jimmy Fallon show), perhaps more familiar to the public, completes this impressive list.
The ironies of Fela being the son of an enormously accomplished feminist mother and a school principal-reverend father who organized a teacher union, the brother of two famous physicians and being a polygamist who lived with that mother is not lost. All pale in comparison to the generous and talented life force that remains only in his music.
Director: Alex Gibney, Director of photography: Maryse Alberti, Music: Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Running Time two hours.
Finding Fela opens in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theatre.