Finding Fela!, the new documentary biography of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, takes great pains to introduce the iconic Nigerian singer-musician (1938-1997) to American audiences as if they’d never heard of him before. And that’s largely the case, although at his peak, Fela’s music — alongside that of King Sunny Adé and other pan-African groups — was almost as popular in the East Bay as in London. Under the direction of filmmaker Alex Gibney, the doc fills in the considerable gaps in our knowledge with a zesty, rough-edged style.
The profile coalesces around Fela!, a Broadway-style stage musical (2009-2012) by director and choreographer Bill T. Jones, but the film’s real power comes from the astounding period footage of Fela in concert and living in Lagos, Nigeria during a particularly tempestuous time. Born into a prominent, highly educated family and schooled in England (where he fell in love with Miles Davis), the performer returned to his homeland in the wake of the horrific 1970 Biafra civil war between the Yoruba (Fela’s tribe) and the Igbo. Amid the strife, the discovery of oil hastened Nigeria’s transformation from a former British colony to a repressive military dictatorship. Fela’s musical opposition to the crackdown dovetailed with his enthusiasm for the Black Power movement then sweeping the world, and his trademark Afrobeat style was born — long, trancelike, polyrhythmic jams that recall the Wailers, James Brown, and P-Funk, featuring elaborate vocals and Fela on tenor sax, garnished with a platoon of costumed dancers.
The movie’s talking heads variously compare Fela to John Coltrane, Bob Marley, and Che Guevara, but he was arguably bigger than all those to his Nigerian fans. Fela and his entourage set themselves up in a Lagos commune called Kalakuta, which he declared as a separate state dedicated to international black liberation. His concerts always featured an anti-government commentary alongside the music. “I have death in my pouch,” Fela declared. “They can’t kill me.” The defiance did not go unnoticed. Police raids and beatings were a regular event. He was imprisoned, championed by human rights groups, then released to great acclaim — Fela toured the world in the 1980s for Amnesty International, sharing bills with such pop stars as Carlos Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, and Ruben Blades. He even ran for president of Nigeria.
Fela’s personal life requires some explaining, but, understandably, Gibney and his crew scarcely know where to begin. As a politically connected Yoruba, Fela operated under traditional tribal rules in a country run by hundreds, if not thousands, of local “chiefs.” He dominated his household of numerous wives and offspring with a patriarchal sexism embarrassing to his international supporters — evidently including a timetable on his bedroom door, designating which wife was expected at what time in the marriage bed. And yet, as one friend notes, Fela remained in Nigeria when he could easily have kicked back in Paris or London. When he died of AIDS in 1997 his funeral brought the entire country to a standstill.
Director Gibney, who produces docs almost as prolifically as Honda makes cars (We Steal Secrets, Gonzo, Taxi to the Dark Side, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, etc.), lays out the original Fela film clips in a straight chronological line, alternating with scenes from Jones’ much-later stage musical. Even in a neat row, the events and influences of his subject’s life whiz by in a colorful blur. Says one of his circle: “Fela is hard medicine for most people.” But his main thrust was toward democracy. Fela is the man who stood up in concert and told a Western audience: “Ninety-nine percent of the information you get about Africa is wrong.” His life and career aimed to correct that error, and Gibney’s kaleidoscopic doc is a highly entertaining part of the process.