Finding Fela – Film Review

An immense documentary reinforcing Kuti’s status as one of Africa’s bravest revolutionaries and musicians

Calling this film about Fela Kuti, the great Nigerian afrobeat musician/revolutionary, Finding Fela sets it up as a kind of Fantastic Man, Vice’s excellent recent documentary about the mysterious William Onyeabor, also from Nigeria, or Searching For Sugar Man about forgotten, then discovered, US folk rock musician Rodriguez. But does Kuti need finding? He was enormously famous in his lifetime (second only to Mandela as a globally recognised African icon in the 1980s, the film suggests) and his musical legacy has lived on in countless reissues of his albums, and in his sons Femi and Seun, who play modernised afrobeat to audiences across the world.

The point is that Kuti has dropped off the radar in mainstream America and it’s with initial alarm that you realise that Finding Fela – directed by Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his 2007 documentary Taxi To The Dark Side – is closely tied to Fela!, the Jay Z and Will Smith-produced musical about Kuti that began a run on Broadway in 2009, then toured. The film has a dual narrative, telling both Kuti’s life story in traditional documentary style (classic footage, all of which is dynamite to watch, spliced with talking heads) and the story of the musical.

It becomes a perfectly effective, if a little clumsy, way for Gibney to make his central points: that everyone should know about Kuti and, also, how do we address him and his legacy in the 21st century? As such, the knotty subjects of his misogyny, polygamy (he married 27 women in a single day in 1978) and views on HIV (he denied its existence, paying the price and dying of AIDS-related illness in 1997) are dealt with in Finding Fela by filming the debate the musical’s director, Bill T. Jones, has with his colleagues about how they are going to confront the same subjects in a Broadway production.

There is much to learn about Kuti by watching Finding Fela. It’s accurate and, at two-hours long, comprehensive. Particularly well covered are his privileged upbringing, his relationship with his mother (a feminist and activist, and Kuti’s guiding light) and the importance of Kuti’s visit to America in the late 1960s, where, in the company of Black Panthers, he became politicised. Incredibly, one interview with an American girlfriend reveals that, pre-politicisation, he was writing songs about soup.

In its larger context, the film tackles post-colonial Nigeria, the subsequent oil boom and police brutality, which killed his mother in a military attack on Kuti’s commune in 1977 and the scars of which you see on his body. It’s an immense story, told well through Kuti’s own story, and although it’s not Gibney’s slickest film, it serves a noble purpose. Finding Fela reinforces Kuti’s status as one of Africa’s bravest and most significant revolutionaries and musicians. Definitely see it.

Phil Hebblethwaite