“My Father’s Life Had To Get Out There”: The Doc “Finding Fela” Is A Must-See For Fela Kuti Fans And Non-Fans Alike

August 2, 2014  |  

“In 1977, when the Black Arts Festival happened in Nigeria, musicians from all over the world, especially America, were all in Nigeria. Stevie Wonder was at the Shrine. Everyone was at the Shrine! They were all inspired by my father’s music, by his bravery.”

That was life in Lagos, Nigeria in the late ’70s, at the world famous Africa Shrine, according to Femi Kuti, son of one of Nigeria’s, or better yet, Africa’s, or even better yet, the world’s, biggest stars.

At a time when biopics are coming out back-to-back-back, one story that I was very excited to hear was coming to the big screen is that of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. As the daughter of a Nigerian man, Kuti’s life and music was talked about and played throughout my home growing up, but for someone just learning about the man and the musical genius, or even those who have heard the name but don’t know anything about him, it’s a must-see.

Finding Fela is from Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney, and it starts from the very beginning of Kuti’s life. The film follows his choice to study music in London while his brothers studied to be doctors, when he started his first band, traveled to the United States and was influenced by the black power movement, came back to Nigeria ready to speak on the injustices going on in the country and how his life changed from then on, up until his death in 1997. The story is told through all those who knew him best: his kids (including Fumi, Seun and Yeni), his manager, Rikki Stein, his former drummer, Tony Allen, and many more people who met and worked alongside the man, or were simply influenced by his music, including Amir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots.

While there have been other works about Kuti’s life, including Music Is The Weapon from 1982 (Finding Fela uses a little bit of footage of Kuti from that film), to me, Finding Fela is the most comprehensive documentary I’ve ever seen on Kuti. There was unseen footage from performances with the Africa 70 in Berlin, and images of Kuti taking his mother’s coffin to the residence of General Olusegun Obasanjo after his soldiers burned down Kuti’s home, beat him and his family, and threw Kuti’s mother from a window. There’s also exclusive footage from Kuti’s funeral that will make you tear up. Executive Producer Stephen Hendel said they had to do some major digging to find such imagery:

“It took several years to get it together. We had an archival researcher tracking footage down. We found footage in people’s garages buried under things, we found footage in closets in various countries–some of the footage was in very poor shape. This footage deteriorates, but we were able to restore it.”

But what I appreciated most about the film is how it made me feel like I actually knew Kuti, and therefore, I was in the cinema, rooting for him, even tearing up for him. The footage they have showed him as a charming, spiritual individual, not afraid to criticize the Nigerian government, not afraid to take a beating from them, and strong on standing with his people (he lived in Lagos among folks of all walks of life). But aside from the good, the film doesn’t shy away from the not-so-good moments. Those moments include his romantic relationship with mentor Sandra Isadore (he wasn’t monogamous at all), his time in prison for currency smuggling, and the controversy that surrounded his death from AIDS. It doesn’t shy away from anything, and so Finding Fela tells you everything you need to know about his work and his life. Those who were with them during such moments have quite the colorful stories to tell too.

And the film does this while also finding time to celebrate the music of Kuti and shining a spotlight on Fela!, the Broadway play (which was amazing by the way) inspired by his life. Celebrated choreographer Bill T. Jones was behind that show, and can be seen in the documentary preparing the story for the play, and in the process of learning more about Kuti, finds himself relating to him more and more. Hendel explains why including all of this in the film this was so important to him:

“We also talk about his legacy in terms of how his story inspired the artist who created the musical. And we use the musical as a way of interplaying with archival footage and with interviews. So the Broadway show is permanent now, and that’s something that I wanted to happen.”

At almost two hours long, the film feels like an epic movie more than just a simple documentary, and when it ends, you either want to immediately go listen to “Lady,” or you want to do some more research on Fela Kuti. And that’s exactly what Hendel says that he wants:

“I hope fans of Fela Kuti come and see the movie, but it’s more important that people who don’t know about him but hear that it’s a good movie come and see the movie, because it’s one of the most important stories on the planet.”

And as someone who grew up with Kuti and played alongside him in Egypt 80, Femi Kuti says he’s proud of the film.

“My father’s life had to get out there. How, when, I never knew, but with my music and my life I always made sure I spoke about it. Because I thought it was a very important history for people to know.”

The film is now screening in NYC, and opens up around the country next week. The film will also make its debut at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria on October 12! Check out the screening dates in your city here.

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