Because it includes so many images from all parts of his life, Finding Fela may offer the finest tribute to the star’s determination and defiance though the way his face and body look as time goes on.
Finding Fela, directed by Alex Gibney. At Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA.
By Milo Miles
Anyone curious about the late Nigerian creator of Afrobeat music, Fela Kuti, will find out almost everything they possibly need to know in Finding Fela, the two-hour documentary by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney. The bandleader’s harrowing and inspirational adventures as an activist artist opposing the repressive Nigeria governments in the ’70s and ’80s take care of themselves. But any biography that aspires to be definitive must grapple with three things: Fela’s attitude toward women, his attitude toward AIDS, and the attitude of Fela!, the successful Broadway musical.
The film begins by establishing an apt tension between Broadway, New York and Lagos, Nigeria. Finding Fela started out as a project that wasn’t of much interest to me as a Fela fan since 1974. Gibney, wowed by the musical, intended to document its performance at a re-opened version of Fela’s famous club in Lagos, the Shrine. This would promote a line resented by us crusty old devotees: that what matters about Fela Kuti was that he was the inspiration for an unlikely musical production that will dominate his legacy. Gibney’s smarts as a storyteller become clear once he realizes that Fela the groundbreaking and eternally defiant performer was more complex, maddening and even dangerous than Fela!
The show gets its due in Finding Fela, interviews with director Bill T. Jones showing that he did a thoughtful, respectful (though showbiz-savvy) job of adapting Fela to the theater. As for the star’s sexism and AIDS denial, well, they are not faced straight on. The documentary digs a bit further, at least.
Certain people have to get their due, foremost among them drummer Tony Allen and composer, singer, and rights-promoter Sandra Izsadore. The temperamental opposite of the boastful shouter in front of the band, Allen was the first drummer Fela encountered who understood jazz and formed a deep connection that lasted for more than 15 years of crucial development. Finding Fela does an unexpectedly concise and clear job of marking out the changes in the leader’s music, from a blend of the sub-Sahara pop craze Highlife and jazz to the precise tension-and-release of soul and funk inspired by James Brown (Fela called his reinvention of it Afrobeat, which has become an enduring influence on new bands to this day), culminating in the winding, lengthy meditations and rave-up jams Fela simply called “African classical.” The film makes a persuasive point that while the Afrobeat created by Fela’s Africa 70 group may be better party music, the extended swells and valleys of the numbers done by his later troupe, Egypt 80, were his deepest artworks.
Sandra Izsadore wears some sparkle-bead makeup as a modest homage to her long-gone lover and confidant from the late-’60s in Los Angeles. It was she who realized how much Fela needed more understanding of black consciousness and it was she who got him to switch from writing about his delicious soup to promoting soul power. Izsadore went with Fela to Lagos, but later returned to America, discouraged by Nigeria’s endemically corrupt politics and a compulsively polyamorous boyfriend. She hits about the right note on Fela’s goonish sexual politics — she calls him out on his BS but doesn’t let that flaw overwhelm his courage and persistence in other matters. Fela biographer Michael Veal demolishes the star’s claim that he was practicing traditional polygamy by taking 27 women as brides — come on, he just married his groupies.
Which brings us to Fela’s death in 1997 from AIDS complications. Two of Fela’s brothers were physicians and held a blistering news conference after he died to make sure the world would have do doubts about what killed him. The awful part of his demise is that Fela was an enormously influential AIDS-rejecter when he could have been an equally potent AIDS-crusader. But his ideas about healthy-living were no more meticulous than his encouraging but murky thoughts on “Pan-Africanism.” His willingness to denounce condoms and infect his partners right until the end is indefensible. But he deserves to be remembered as more than a self-destructive denier of a deadly disease
Because it includes so many images from all parts of his life, Finding Fela may offer the finest tribute to the star’s determination and defiance through the way his face and body look as time goes on. As he rises into popstar success in the ’70s, he’s the lithe, handsome, smooth-moves fellow fans first encountered then — smiling, even a hint of a clown. As they ’70s turn into the ’80s, after the powers that be turned on him and burned down his commune-compound while they fatally injured his mother, you see flickers of joy in his eyes but his face becomes angry, squeezed by rage. Fela wears as little as he possibly can, and there’s a horrifying progression of scars across his chest and back as he is repeatedly beaten and battered by the police. And naturally, near the end, he looks ravaged with illness. I’m sure Fela would bush all this aside with his hand. In 1975, he gave himself the new middle name, Anikulapo, which means “he who keeps death in his pocket.” So of course death may have taken him away, but it did not defeat him.
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.