Finding Fela! Dir. Alex Gibney

[Jigsaw Productions; 2014]

Styles: music documentary
Others: Soul Power, Respect: The Stax Records Story, No Direction Home

I gather that the term groove has a largely negative connotation. If it’s not put-to-pasture hippy ephemera then it’s jam bands and smooth jazz that the word tends to hover around. But thanks to Afro-beat music, I can use the word “groove” with impunity in a purely celebratory manner. Rhythm and repetition in general are so important to so many key aspects of life that are often written off as redundant or unfulfilling. Groove seems like instant gratification, but it is infinite and unreachable. It doesn’t begin or end, as it is only standing in for the motions of a body that relies on constant movement to thrive. Afro-beat’s influence on the music this site and many other savvy publications cover is everywhere. And many stones have been thrown at post-Graceland (some might let fly at Graceland and onward) trendiness being opportunistic or ignorant or even potentially detrimental to Fela’s original message, much of it conveying his struggles against a largely corrupt, oppressive Nigerian government. I myself have grooved (that’s as far as I’ll go - I won’t put a “y” on there) and lost my shit to this music for years now without knowing all that much about it. This documentary on the central figure in this invigoratingly challenging, massively sensual genre is essential for the novice — just as the musical about Fela (explored extensively here) seems a good hook for people who’ve never ventured beyond Paul Simon or a bit of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

In a way, learning about the man undermines the listening experience. Because Fela Kuti’s songs surge with so much riveting exultation and harrowing anguish, it’s a little hard to think of him as a privileged, sexist (despite his mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, being a prominent woman’s rights activist), megalomaniacal tyrant of sorts. But by all accounts, so was his musical forefather James Brown. And given the radical difference in blunt instruments, it’s easy to champion the artist over the guy with the gun and koboko (a whip often used on people who commit traffic infractions*). Fela tapped into rage and disenfranchisement against the corrupt powers that be with his music, and perhaps even fanned the flames of unrest further with his actions. Even if time exhaustingly shows humans as a race keen on either martyrdom or destruction and dominance, “Zombie” still phenomenally resonates a sense of righteousness and empowerment. I feel like Tommy Smothers introducing “My Generation” teeing this up because every time you hear it is like the first time and it “really goes and you’re gonna be surprised what happens”. It’s churning, undulating mass is made all the more overwhelming when you consider the song’s turbulent and ultimately tragic significance.

As a presentation, Finding Fela! has a lot of the usual music doc pleasures (rare footage, trenchant insights) and pitfalls. The pitfalls are usually pat, fluffy talking head quips and forced, cutesy animations, but here it’s the very thing that separates journalism from art: editing. While the voice-over here is well woven into the footage and stills used, and the detailing of events thorough, there is a getting-in-their-own-way sort of fussiness to the film’s framing device. Even though it’s a major boon to getting Fela’s music out there, much of the rehearsal/prep footage for the musical (Fela!) feels like a series of previews to an epilogue or perhaps another documentary altogether. The film seems to continually reiterate (perhaps inadvertently) that the music tells it’s own story. But the insistence of the modern day, behind-the-scenes theater stuff disrupts a narrative that’s too complex to be a fancy promo for a musical. This man led a harrowing, vainglorious, absurd life — one that goes well beyond cinematic in scope. But his work speaks volumes, and an ideal music doc should seize on the elusive poetry of performance over careful contextualizing every time. Finding Fela comes close to being a great movie, but only because of the music and the events surrounding it. Despite it (re)kindling our excitement for a great artist, what we have here is yet another workmanlike, obligatory sort of Sunday night program for a subject that deserves a film as compelling as he was.

*Looks as though Nigeria’s traffic problems and policing thereof has not improved much since the seventies.

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