Review: Fela lives forever in the documentary, Finding Fela

by Wilfred Okiche


Nigeria’s biggest music export, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti returns to vivid, dramatic life once again in this thoroughly enjoyable documentary directed by prolific, Academy Award winning filmmaker, Alex Gibney.

Gibney whose previous subjects include cultural and industrial heavyweights such as; Wikileaks, Enron and Eliot Spitzer, finds in Anikulapo-Kuti, a perfect subject for his brand of incisive and revealing docudramas; an over the top character with an ear for the original, perfect sound as well as a lavish appetite for women and weed. Finding Fela chronicles his rise and fall, and rise again post-mortem, to become a globally revered cultural icon.

Finding Fela offers some of the elements that make up a decent commercial effort; an outsize (anti)hero, a plot fuelled by the heroes’ battles with both government forces and his inner demons and music that is explosive and darn irresistible to move your body to. Because of this, the documentary appeals to as wide an audience as is cinematically possible. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Fela’s brand of politically conscious Afrobeat- or of documentaries either- to be captivated by Finding Fela’s intoxicating blend of archive footage, interview sessions with pals who knew him best (among them; drummer, Tony Allen, illustrator, Lemi Ghariokwu, former New York Times correspondent, John Darnton) and outtakes from rehearsal sessions from Fela!, the 2009 Broadway sensation, based on a biography by Bill. T. Jones and Jim Lewis.

Finding Fela plays like the filmmaker happened upon Fela’s radicalism and fever pitched blend of satire and spiritualism from the 2009 Broadway extravaganza (which was executive produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Jay-Z) thus, a lot of the film may feel like a long running tie-in to the Broadway show.

The rehearsals for the Broadway musical form the anchor for the film and audiences are exposed to the challenges and lengthy moments of reflection that the show runner Bill T. Jones, as well as his cast and crew grappled with while bringing Fela to life on Broadway. Fela was a musical genius, seems to be the general consensus but how much of his gift was driven by madness? Was his mother’s death at the hands of his military oppressors the ultimate moment of unravelling for him or was he possessed by a supernatural spirit from his birth.

Family members are enlisted to deconstruct some of the man’s excesses but almost none is willing to utter a negative word, for fear of upsetting the burgeoning legacy. Queen Kewe, one of the 27 women whom he married in a single ceremony, remains a throwback to those crazy days of substance induced excesses with her cheap tiara, garish smile and mild recollections of her times living with Fela, when he would draw up a timetable for the wives to visit his bedroom. There is a sense of unrepentance in a lot of these merry folk and a wistful nostalgia for the days of madness past.

While his musical legend and activist credentials are unimpeachable, truth is the man was a terrible father and his self- secessionist Kalakuta republic, a poisonous place for raising kids but you would never know this from the reflections of 3 of Fela’s most popular offspring.

Femi Kuti, the firstborn son who has staked out a successful Afrobeat career of his own after starting out in his father’s band, Yeni-Kuti the CEO of Fela’s remodelled New Afrika shrine who has become the de facto custodian of her father’s legacy and Seun Kuti, Fela’s youngest son, who inherited his father’s Egypt 80 band. The three trade sound bites and intimate details on growing up with Fela but apart from a stinging criticism of a Ghanaian prophet who tailed him at the later stages of his life, the kids are quite alright with daddy.

The film also explores his early indoctrination and fascination with revolution, as a means of freeing the black race from oppression, highlighting his troubled relationship with Sandra Izsadore, a singer and composer who was a member of the Black Panther movement. Then, there is the unflinching look at Fela’s final months, when, weighed down by the symptoms and stigmata of HIV, he would refuse to accept or deal with his morbidity, instead ascribing supernatural powers to himself and claiming to own death in his pouch. In retrospect, a lot of these rants were plain gibberish, possibly brought on by dementia and aggravated by his deeper forays into the trado-spiritual realm but they add a distinct poignancy and mystery to the idea of Fela that his family obviously cares about institutionalising.

Finding Fela does its best to avoid hagiography and offer a realistic portrait of Fela as both man and legend, inventor and revolutionary, troubadour and troublemaker.  After all is said and done, it succeeds mostly, serving as academic and primer material for the eventual Hollywood treatment that is sure to come.

We hope.


The writer tweets from @drwill20

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