Until now, Music is the Weapon has been the go-to documentary in which to see Fela Kuti. Made in 1982 for European TV, Stéphane Tchal Gadjieff and Jean-Jacques Flori produced two takes: the aforementioned English title and and its French-flipside Musique au Poing, each cut and narrated differently. Both versions show the king of afrobeat in his iconic sagging underwear, his Queens close at hand. Life in and out of the Kalakuta Republic. Glimpses of the modern, smoky, heated Lagos in which Fela breathed. Ideal outsiders’ introductions to the black president.

Finding Fela replays the merits of Music is the Weapon, literally cutting in large slices of the footage. Instead of grounding itself in west Africa, however, it is placed firmly overseas. From the opening monologue Fela gives (at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival) to the brash arrival on Broadway — where Fela! the musical becomes the lens through which we are shown Fela’s life.

Are producer/director pairing Jack Gulick and Alex Gibney more than whiteys with inherited wealth? People who’ve followed mainstream media hype — commercial theatre in this case — and now want to tell the world about their new discovery? Who happen to have the finances and the noise that readily comes with it? Not to mention a long back catalogue of biopics of north American cult figures from Hunter S.Thompson to Mariah Carey.

How might they reckon to a Nollywood depiction of Bob Dylan? Would such a film be taken seriously across the Atlantic?

Fela at the Kalakuta Republic.
Fela with his queens at the Kalakuta Republic. Screenshot from archival footage.

Attempting to present Fela on the big screen is nothing new. In the mid-1970s plans were afoot to make a film biography, provisionally titled The Black President. However, during the brutal February 18th attack on his Kalakuta Republic, the soundtrack’s tapes were destroyed and when later attempts to redub the recordings didn’t work out the project was shelved.

Numerous Fela live shows and video interviews have been captured (round-up listed below). During the afrobeat icon’s 1986 visit to New York, Edward Jaheed Ashley filmed an intimate portrait eventually released without fanfare in 2006. Will the glitzy PR campaign for Finding Fela steamroller awareness and distribution options for Ashley’s Fela NYC: Fresh From Africa? This earlier work may not carry the slickness of Finding Fela but will hopefully still get to be widely seen.


Excerpt from Fela NYC: Fresh From Africa

Gibney is an experienced documentary maker. Perhaps, to his defence, Finding Fela is the an honest attempt to find out more about the black president. Good for him. We all learn in our own space and time and, of course, Fela’s a deserved figure to study. But is it necessary, to pilfer a phrase from Stuart Hall, to air one’s puberty in public?

Finding Fela has merits, much of which the film’s publicists package as “recently rediscovered archival footage”. On a bus, radio interviews, performing. Insides of The (Afrika) Shrine and Kalakuta Republic, the 27:1 wedding, The Biafran War, the notorious storming of the Kuti’s house, Fela’s funeral (including Seun Kuti’s performance). A busy record pressing assembly line. Photos. Mostly material that, for parties who’ve made it their interest to go know, has been viewable in books, on TV, VHS, DVD or online for some time.

Cutting in a rerun of Back on Black is worth applause as the UK television programme was on hand to witness Professor Hindu’s notorious throat-slashing stage show. Gore galore. Having previously heard an account of this evening in 1984 by Jumbo Vanrenen, DJ for the night, rest assured the freshly dug grave wasn’t occupied when everyone had left.

Flyer kindly shared by Jumbo Vanrenen.
Flyer for Professor Hindu’s notorious UK stage show. Flyer courtesy Jumbo Vanrenen, the DJ on the night.

The attention paid to Fela’s unique compositional trajectory is also pleasing. Musical travels from Olufela’s schooling in London to his take on Highlife with Koola Lobitos, then onward to Los Angeles, and back to Lagos, where it really came together; Africa 70 followed by Egypt 80.

Typically, talking heads are many. Some elders: J.K. Braimah, Fela’s friend since teenhood; Dele Sosimi and Tony Allen, Fela’s on-stage accomplices; director and choreographer of Fela! the theatre production, Bill T. Jones; foreign correspondent turned potential Minister of Information in Fela’s national government, John Darnton. Plus Carlos Moore and Michael Veal, credible, learned speakers on Fela’s music and legacy whose research and writings are the foundations for both these musical theatre and film takes on Fela’s life.

As for a Paul McCartney cameo, the Beatle frontman can jog on with his weaping bullshit. Yes McCartney was a Fela fan, blazing at The Shrine back in the 1970s but what did he take home with him from the teachings on offer? [All of McCartney’s gushing for Fela can be seen in a longer cut of the interview here.]

 ?uestlove don’t count either. I appreciate double consciousness creates confusion but no thanks to an OkayAfricanisation of the continent. Attempts to stake ownership claims. If not quite authorities stealing then such outsourced commentary is at best reductionist. It’s easy to teach more nonsense. Ah, you know Fela was cool. Yeah, let’s mash-up his music with some other black artist. Who cares for nuances? Specialness? Never mind the politics. Better yet, let’s get a local band to play the music.


Is Fela’s legacy shuffering while the filmmakers are shmiling?

Early on, Bill T. Jones calls out his decision to take Fela’s image above ground, going on to justify why he judges it okay. I mean, shouldn’t more people know of Fela’s greatness? Rikki Stern, Fela’s former manager, nods. But is it better to know of Fela in “2D” or not at all? Where are the stories with Thomas Sankara? Of “counter-FESTAC”? Or close readings of Fela’s lyrics? Not here, where everything that is solid turns into a t-shirt design. Come on, there are profits to be made.

Finding Fela is Fela on an extended tour in Europe and the US. Still being exoticisized. Having to perpetually explain himself. His message and modes weakening. (Music) Culture not as a weapon instead as a commodity, ripe to commercialise. The film’s vantage point echoes its opening credits: a power show in Berlin. This is Africa being documented by the rest of the world.

How Fela’s offspring choose to tell their father’s story is their business but are Brooklyn and London-based label Knitting Factory Records, the film co-producers and gatekeepers to Fela’s back catalogue, preserving Fela’s potency? Or steadily diluting his message for quick bucks? Vinyl reissues yes please, compilation albums alright — but branded shot glasses? Really?

More deals are being struck to present Fela on film. Focus Features International, a part of NBCUniversal, have been plotting a biopic for a few years.  Presumably this will turn out to be another (re)introduction to Fela rather than a detailed or even critical portrait. With a British or north American lead actor soon to be drafted to ensure it doesn’t become too Nigerian. 

If Finding Fela is a starting point to learning more of and from Fela then I suppose it’s justified. However, an alternative, sonic response to Finding Fela speaks louder than a written review can. An audio portrait compiled and mixed by Ntone Edjabe, founder of mutable pan African organisation Chimurenga and student of the Kalakuta Republic, the song selections move between great Yoruba musicians and styles, fuji, ajiwere. It reminds us that if we want to know of Fela we must listen to the music.

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Fela Kuti film round-up:

Calabar (with Ginger Baker), 1970s http://youtu.be/Si0_ufBUVuQ

Berlin Jazz Festival, 1978 (full 1hr 30 performance) http://youtu.be/6B1wSECScPA

European TV interviews and profiles from the 1980s:

— Belgian http://youtu.be/mv_OozxYjpk

— Dutch, http://youtu.be/KDzmUtMQFlA

— French http://youtu.be/3EfINoDX1Qo

— Spanish http://youtu.be/gFY-6x1qTzU

African Jazz Jam, Munich, 1983 http://youtu.be/DVUX3_NsvrE

Fela Live! Glastonbury, 1984. Full live show and interviews (available on DVD) http://youtu.be/A-kMzxA-Ovw

Konkombe, 2000. An hour long film on Nigerian pop figures (split over 6 parts) http://youtu.be/9pix-fExUd4

Fela NYC: Fresh From Africa (also available on DVD) http://felanycdvd.com