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Finding Fela, by Alex Gibney, is quite an ordinary documentary that portrays an extra-ordinary man and his story.
Of course the movie is a must-see for music-lovers, in particular jazz fans. There are many clips and concert fragments to enjoy, even if some of them are a little less sharp due to the age of the footage, which sometimes looks like it was taken from Youtube. But the movie offers more; it tells the story of an activist who is using 'music as a weapon' and his lifestyle as an example of freedom. Finally the movie also puts Fela's music at an important place in musical history, recognizing it as one of the building blocks and milestones of jazz, bringing in elements of soul, funk, rock and African sounds. Fela called it Afrobeat.
Like some other musicians in the 60s and 70s Fela likes to play long cores, sometimes for over more than 30 minutes, making it hard to play his music on the radio. In his defense, he wonders why no-one ever questioned Beethoven or Bach for writing long pieces of music. I would say that even in his own time slot and not only in jazz, there were more musicians that could not be bothered by 3-minute frames, think of Frank Zappa or Deep Purple.
The personal story of Fela the man and his Nigerian roots completes the musical story, and makes him truly stand out. His struggle against the Nigerian government, lead by Obasanjo who came from a similar family in the same part of the country as Fela Kuti did, is a harsh one. This common background and the prestige of the Kuti family, might have saved Fela for some years, but in the end the military acted out, causing Fela's beloved mother to die, his home to be eradicated and Fela being put in jail. Although the film doesn't display all the details about this attack, the severity and cruel nature is clearly portrayed. It is shocking to realize what happened, and to know little has changed in the years after. The fact that Fela never left the country to live somewhere else, is something to admire.
The director chose to take the performance of the American made musical Fela in Lagos as the hook to tell his story, which is a good idea, particularly to explain something about how difficult it is to understand Fela, his mind and the context in which he lived. It also explains the title of the movie: the director of the musical discusses these things with Fela's friends, family and fellow-musicians. They try to get an idea about what made Fela tick and how to present that in the musical. This is a smart way to make the audience part of the search. But to my mind clips from the musical took up too much time; it is so much better to look at and listen to the real Fela, that it gets annoying to watch actors play Fela (however well done). But if this is the only point of criticism, it is easy to overcome. Listen to Fela through his recordings, and see the movie for food for thought about this brave and talented man.
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