REVIEW: Finding Fela! @ Tyneside Cinema | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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fourDirector: Alex Gibney

Starring: Fela Kuti

Run Time: 120 Minutes

Certificate: 15


“Fela means For Ever Lives Africa”

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a complex character – far too complex to be a mere hero, or to be the subject of a mere hagiography. It’s to the credit of Gibney’s movie that he doesn’t shy away from Kuti’s many flaws but neither is it in any sense a hatchet job. Instead it’s a compelling and powerful account of a life lived at an incredible pitch by an incredible man. Kuti was a visionary and pioneer, a firebrand and a lightning rod for his people. But he was also a dandy and an opportunist, and as the movie clearly demonstrates, his gender politics were as regressive as his political fervour was revolutionary (and his justifications for having 27 wives as part of Yoruba tradition are comprehensively debunked). Kuti’s bloodymindedness in dealing with the repressive Nigerian regime, his direct provocations – in his songs and his artwork, his frequent arrests and beating at their hands, the raid on his Kalakuta Republic compound (which led to his mother’s murder) are all captured in an urgent, often upsetting way. So too is his eventual decline into spiritual nonsense and stoner paranoia, and his cavalier and ignorant refusal to deal with his status as an HIV positive person is disturbing, especially given his (unprotected) promiscuity.

this is a must see – for the music, for the history, but most of all of course for the man

Presented with a huge life and a comparatively short running time, Gibney pulls together a wealth of interviews and footage that give Kuti a political and musical context – his privileged, progressive childhood, the oil and colonialism backdrop to Nigeria’s ongoing corruption and dictatorships – to the extent that occasionally it felt that the music was actually under-represented. But then to paraphrase his manager, what three minutes should they have used? The other criticism of the movie is that it uses the award-hoovering musical Fela! as a framing device for the material, showing director and writer Bill T Jones developing the musical with its cast and some of Fela’s associates. While the musical itself looks incredible, it seems to take up significantly more screen time than footage of Fela himself, which considering how mind-blowingly good Kuti was onstage – especially with Africa 70 – is a little perverse. Jones is also a rather spikey and self-regarding presence. But these are minor issues: if you know Fela’s music and life, there’s still a lot to love here. If you don’t, this is a must see – for the music, for the history, but most of all of course for the man.

Finding Fela! is showing at Tyneside Cinema until Wednesday 14th January

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