‘Finding’ Fela is the kind of documentary that should be abysmal but isn’t; clearly a marketing conceit from the makers of ‘Fela: The Musical’ – it transcends its dubious conception, and gives a mesmerising, often sumptuously illustrated account of Fela’s life, and crucially, his music. With interviews with some of Fela’s associates, this documentary tears at the surface of the legend and begins to reveal the complexity of Fela the man; archive footage of interviews with Fela are interspersed between clips from the musical, but we are never in doubt as to what is the more compelling draw, undoubtedly, the precious moments of Fela caught on film.
The sections of the film that reference the musical border on being annoying – redeemed only by the sage-like personality of Bill T. Jones, who choreographed the musical – his journey to understanding Fela makes him one of the strongest voices in this documentary, alongside ethnomusicologist Michael Veal, who has also written an excellent biography of the musician. Veal places Fela in intellectual context, but also draws out what was culturally unique about Fela as well. Other commentators, particularly those who worked on the musical are less informative, and sometimes just ignorant and irritating.
Veal and Bill T. Jones are not the only great characters in the documentary though – giving an insight into the emotional fallout of some of Fela’s decisions, are three of his children, Yeni Kuti, Femi and Seun. Sandra Isadore– the African-American woman, who takes the credit for sensitising Fela to black power and politics, provides a counterpoint of levity, as well as a welcome break from the breathless reverence of others.
This is where Alex Gibney excels – the director, known for other documentary work including ‘The Armstrong Lie’ – exposes both the delightful and disturbing aspects of Fela’s personality. The contradiction of a man who revered his mother, one of Nigeria’s foremost nationalists and feminists, who also time and again valued women only for the sexual pleasure they provided is amply portrayed; but so is the tenacity and courage that characterised his outspokenness against Nigeria’s brutal military regimes. The title of the documentary could just as well be about Fela’s own quest to find himself, and there are some surprising revelations in the documentary including the fact that even though Fela was studied music, he was a less than enthusiastic and even exemplary student; instead he spent much of his time at jazz haunts, indicating that perhaps he knew more about his musical destiny than the standard narrative gives him credit for, and it would certainly be interesting to see if other studies of his life reveal Fela to be more politically and musically astute earlier on in his life in Nigeria.
For anyone watching this, Fela’s music provides the ultimate driving force of the story, and its evolution is excellently although never laboriously documented; commentary from Tony Allen and others who worked with Fela creatively reveal a man very disciplined about his music in contrast to the relative chaos of his personal and political life.
Towards the end of his life, as his music became more elaborate, richer and longer – the coherence of his social and political vision faltered, as he was drawn more deeply into an esoteric African spiritualism that blinded him to the HIV which would eventually kill him. In the end though, Fela was proved right, he wasn’t killed by any man, and his immortality is ensured. Perhaps one of the best moments of this documentary is the footage of Fela’s funeral, which was expected to attract some thousands of people, but in the end drew in millions, demonstrating then, as now, his continued impact and relevance to the lives of the common people of Nigeria. I hope in the coming years that others explore other aspects of Fela’s life and the community he created – one wonders about the fate of his 27 wives, and also aches to learn more about his mother, and some of the other characters in his life, in particular his ‘official’ wife who emerges as an enigmatic but instrumental character in his life.
This will hardly be the last documentary made about Fela, but it will certainly take some work to make another one about the great man so richly illustrated with his music, voice and personality.
Finding Fela is released in UK cinemas on 05 September. On 04 September there will be a preview screening at the BFI followed by a Q&A with Fela’s manager and long-time collaborator, Rikki Stein. For all screenings visit http://findingfela.co.uk/screenings
Dele Meiji Fatunla