Finding Fela. A movie by Alex Gibney.

Irish Movie Premiere, The Sugar Club, Dublin, 06.09.14

Dublin Afrobeat Ensemble played a full set of Fela Kuti songs as part of the post movie premiere party. More images in the Finding Fela Dublin Afrobeat Gallery.

The extraordinary life and times of Fela Anikulapo Kuti is the subject of a documentary movie (an’ afrobeatumentary’ if you will, no?) by acclaimed director Alex Gibney. Previous work from Gibney includes 'Taxi To The Darkside' and 'Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room'. So it is with some serous movie muscles that Gibney and Co. try to tackle the infuriating, controversial, brave and brilliant bandleader that was Kuti. Any attempt to capture the life of the Nigerian originator must be like restraining an octopus in a string bag. He came from a privileged background yet somehow ended up under arrest over two hundred times, had his skull fractured in an army raid and lost his mother through a similarly vicious attack. His siblings became serious figures in the field of medicine in Nigeria and the World Health Organisation. Kuti had a Christian upbringing and attended elite schools. His life could have been one of extreme ease had he stepped in time with those in power. He, however, marched to the beat of a different drum. Tony Allen’s drum to be precise (a man often credited with playing the crucial role in the birth of the Afrobeat music genre).

There is a good run through of Fela Kuti’s life on the movie website linked above.

The movie is essentially a curation of available Kuti footage interspersed with talking heads’ thoughts on the music man/revolutionary and self styled “Black President”. Some interesting people appear to give their reminiscences on Kuti’s music and personality. Paul McCartney visited Lagos in 1972 and recalls that Kuti’s band was the best he had ever seen playing live, “When Kuti and his band eventually began to play I couldn’t stop weeping with joy”. Rikki Stein, a manager and friend of Kuti’s also adds some interesting details about the careering modus operandi of his infuriating client. Kuti made some controversial remarks about women and homosexuality. I suspect he knew full well that such opinions would translate into column space in the music press and beyond. He had, after all, lived in Los Angeles and studied music in London so he must have had an inkling that his utterances were like a red flag to the Western liberal bulls. Other family members appear on screen and somewhat humourously tell of Kuti repeating a number of years at school and of being a dunce. Gibney’s movie does it’s best to cover the good, the bad and the ugly in the story telling. Very early on in the film there is a jarring piece of footage from Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s. The graphic nature let’s us know that the story about to unfold will not be a lamentation on a duff third album by some cocaine addled West Coast rawk band. No, the audience is immediately aware that the Kuti story will bring violence and very real suffering. Kuti set up a commune to live and gathered around him a whole host of people to keep it running. The movie mentions his generosity in giving people jobs in his entourage. In one interview, Tony Allen, incredulously shakes his head at the 70 strong touring group that Kuti assembled, ”Seventy fucking people!” This type of devil-may-care thinking and the always available self-destruct button caused Kuti to miss out on some real opportunities it seems. A deal with Motown Records failed because of Kuti’s apparent unstinting belief in his spiritual guide, a dubious Professor Hindu. Procrastination while waiting for spirits to send over their approval meant that the Motown deal fell through. Kuti also allegedly turned down the chance to guest on McCartney’s/Wings “Band On The Run” album. The movie catalogues the series of assaults on the Kuti commune (one leading to the death of his mother), the multiple arrests and beatings and Kuti’s eventual death from an AIDS related condition. Kuti’s life was one of a truly courageous fight against colonialism, corruption and attacking the status quo in his country, using his Afrobeat musical hybrid as a medium for scathing social commentary . It would have been nice to hear the thoughts of some of the army generals and politicians involved at the time and to ascertain just how dangerous the Kuti songs and attitude were perceived by those in power.

Fela Kuti took the middle name ‘Anikulapo’. The word means ‘he who has death in his pouch’, suggesting that the Grim Reaper was under control. Ironically the possibility of death was always close at hand for Kuti. The movie is a welcome addition to the Kuti story and will surely drive further interest in the back catalogue of the musical visionary.

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