The new documentary Finding Fela might sound as though it’s a film tailor-made for fans of the superhumanly charismatic and talented Nigerian singer Fela—and it can certainly serve this purpose—but actually, it’s viewers who know the least about the man going into the film who might be most thrilled to learn his incredible story.
Directed by Alex Gibney, who received an Oscar in 2008 for Taxi to the Dark Side and a nomination in 2006 for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the film begins not with music but with a political speech, a heartfelt and tantalizingly intimate aside by Fela to his audience during a concert about the brutal situation in Nigeria. Fela was from a prominent family but engaged with revolutionary themes as the country struggled under military rule, civil war, growing oil revenues and flagrant corruption. He was an impassioned and insightful artist, a cultural figure along the lines of Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and James Brown.
Great musicians use music as a tool to build new rooms, new worlds for the listeners. Fela did this as much as anyone, but more than anyone he wanted to get to that new world literally, as well: he had political ambitions to become president, using music to guide a revolution towards a more progressive and just society. His targets were genuinely nasty, and he sensibly seemed to figure that if art was not used to implicate and even antagonize them, then what exactly is it for? He chose that path and then stayed on it in spite of all its difficulties, which turned out to be enormous, on the level of Greek tragedy. One of the interview subjects assesses Fela’s evolution as a form of beautiful madness, an area where the saint and madman are indistinguishable.
“Music can’t be for enjoyment,” is one of the most shocking things Fela says on camera. “It has to be for revolution.” In one song, he criticizes the Nigerian cultural tendency to smile through adversity. For a time, his music and performance became more like a “war by other means” against corrupt leaders, against a kind of wordly power in general, something hard to believe could organically germinate and blossom into beautiful and compelling song, but there it is. It was when he combined the improvisational, dramatic, cerebral, and spiritual possibilities of jazz with the then popular dance music known as high life, and then injected it with political messages, that he took off into the stratosphere. A brief segment about the album covers by Ghariokwu Lemi will be of special interest to visual artists, featuring memorable, eye-popping, graffiti-like imagery and big political narratives.
Fela’s story is, for better or worse (in my opinion worse), told in the film in parallel with the story of the artistic struggle to recreate something of his life and music in a recent Broadway musical. The creation of a big, risky show is always a fascinating story to tell, but of course it pales in comparison to Fela’s own story, and often we wonder why we’re being brought out of 1970s Nigeria to watch people in a Manhattan rehearsal room in 2008. The film’s strategy does allow us to hear quite a bit of the pull-no-punches insight of choreographer Bill T. Jones, but we also see a lot of the show itself, more even than we see and hear Fela himself performing, which is a misstep. We watch the film curious to gain a better understanding of the man, and we end up watching a talented imitation of him: it’s a great concept for a theatrical show, but not so great for a documentary movie.
There is some archival footage of Fela, but frustratingly, the film doesn’t distinguish between that and the newer performances, which are, of course, designed in every way to look like the real thing: it’s in effect a blurring of factual and fictional elements that, some would say, documentary filmmakers should take great pains to avoid. Having said that, I have to admit it looks like a fantastic show. In the end, you know you’re watching a fascinating film when Jones is actually one of the least interesting things about it.
After getting beaten but evading the worst of a police raid, Fela brags he holds death in his pocket. It’s only a bit more troubling as the documentary shows how Nigeria’s most famous musician and something of a national hero allowed himself to be misled by a spiritual fake. However, there is still the opera of performance, the choreography of entrance and exit, the introduction of new musical elements one by one, and the artist’s gobsmackingly complete and unwavering presence in front of the audience: his love for humanity is clear. “Music will be the weapon of the future,” Fela remarks in an archival interview at one point: in the context of the documentary, it’s a claim that seems at once dizzyingly believable and quixotically impossible.