Finding Fela: Documentary Chronicles Mercurial Musician/Activist Fela Kuti

by Tom Haugen

findingfeladvd_300A Nigerian multi-instrumentalist known for his politically fueled songs as well as starting the Afrobeat style of music in the late '60s, Fela Kuti was also a composer, activist and father whose children have carried on his strong political beliefs with their own music. At one point, Kuti's music was so controversial it sparked an attack from the government, who not only killed his mother but also destroyed his ability to record more music.

Of course, this only led the defiant Kuti to pen even more diatribes about the Nigerian military and in 1980 he even ran for President of Nigeria.

Alex Gibney, one of the busiest documentarians today, takes on the daunting task of covering Kuti's prolific and often tense life. Trying to squeeze several decades of music, activism, personal strife and a couple hours could not have been easy. Rumor has it the original length of the film was three hours.

Like any worthwhile documentary, interviews with family, bandmates, and celebrity fans who all had interaction with Kuti is key to understanding the dynamics of Kuti's life. Additionally, the footage of Kuti on and off stage also gives us insight into his persona, and through that we're able to come to the conclusion that, like all good geniuses, Kuti was often seemingly on the brink of being mentally unhinged.

Sure, he made some inspiring music for the oppressed in his continent and fought for the downtrodden via political activism. But Kuti was also a world-class narcissist, engaged in extreme polygamy (at one point he married 27 woman in one ceremony) and was tied to drug use as well. Whether these aspects of his life negate the other inspiring areas of his life is probably inconsequential; the fact is that Kuti's actions left an indelible mark across millions of people.

Kuti died in 1997 due to complications of AIDS. A reported one million people came to his funeral – further proof of how deep his impact was. Even if you're unaware of who Fela Kuti was, this is an extremely interesting documentary and is very in depth. Gibney does a great job of staying neutral with regard to Kuti's questionable behavior, allowing the viewer to make their own decisions, and the celebrity cameos are kept to a minimum (the most notable being Paul McCartney), instead relying on those closest to Kuti for interviews. Though the film was created as companion to the Broadway musical Fela! The Musical, it serves as a great insight into a complicated, passionate and iconoclastic mind.


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