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Fela Anikulapo Kuti has been called the most important musician of the 20th century, yet before the 2009 Jay-Z-and-Will Smith-produced musical Fela! grabbed 11 Tony nominations and entertained a million theatergoers, the African superstar’s story was largely unknown.
The Broadway smash told the story of Kuti’s transformation from the young, obsessed musician who invented the Afrobeat sound into the voice of protest against Africa’s post-colonial oppression. Every night from his club The Shrine, Kuti led the charge against the Nigerian military regime, which was headquartered down the street. The musician’s protests led to Kuti being arrested (an estimated 200 times) and severely beaten, his house being set on fire, and the death of his mother (she was thrown from a second floor window).
One of those in the Fela! audience who was moved by the story was acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie), who jumped at the chance to document the musical’s journey to Lagos to be performed in Kuti’s hometown. Gibney’s original interest was in telling the story of Fela’s homecoming in the form of an American theatrical troupe performing the Nigerian artist’s work in his homeland.
As Gibney tells The Hollywood Reporter, his interest eventually started to expand, and “over time, the spirit of Fela Kuti took over, and the real Fela demanded to be included.”
This led Gibney to interview everyone from Kuti’s children to Paul McCartney and Questlove, as well as to the unearthing of hours of archival footage. Gibney takes this standard music bio-doc material and interweaves it with the story of the creation of Fela! the musical. He not only includes portions of Fela! stage performances but also pre-production footage of choreographer/director Bill T. Jones struggling with how best to tell Kuti’s story.
“The film is called Finding Fela,” explains Gibney in an email. “It is about personal and artistic discovery — for those of us who were discovering Fela (the group behind the play) and [the real] Fela. What I loved about the pre-production meetings (and I didn’t shoot that footage) is the sense of discovery and reckoning with Fela’s character. That’s the fundamental question of the film: Who is this man?”
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Whereas Jones decided to gloss over some of the less savory aspects of Kuti’s life, Gibney has made a career of exploring the contradictions between his subjects’ great accomplishments and and their personal failings (Lance Armstrong, Julian Assange, Eliot Spitzer). For Gibney this meant tackling head-on Kuti’s not-always-positive relationship with women, including his 23 wives, along with his denial of having AIDS, the disease that took his life in 1997.
“Fela did have a healthy ego,” Gibney says. “He was a rock star and Nigeria’s most powerful cultural figure. And sometimes that led him to imagine that he could beat death and be immune from AIDS, the ‘powers that be’ and the rules followed by so many others. I also think that all the beatings — and the killing of his mother — took their toll on Fela. He was powerful force of resistance to a string of dictators and he was the voice of the dispossessed. But in his own life, he sometimes suffered from self-deception and put others at risk.”
Of all that Gibney’s research team unearthed for the film, the thing that surprised even those closest to the Afrobeat superstar and Gibney himself was the found footage of Kuti’s funeral.
“What a scene: A million people turned out for the man!” Gibney reflects. “And look at the spliff in his coffin. It’s as big as a Louisville Slugger.”
Finding Fela is currently playing at the IFC Theater in New York before traveling to other U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, where it will open at the Landmark Nuart on Aug 15.
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