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'Music is the weapon' in Sundance documentary 'Finding Fela'

Published January 21, 2014 9:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Trouble.

That's how the son of famed musician and political figure Fela Anikulapo Kuti described the album "Zombie," a politically charged Afrobeat record that would have devastating and deadly consequences for Fela, his friends and family.

Kuti's life, troubles and music were chronicled by the prolific Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney in his latest documentary, "Finding Fela," which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. Gibney is the man behind docs like "The Armstrong Lie" and "Taxi to the Dark Side."

It portrays Fela as a complicated, contradictory and deeply charismatic figure in Nigeria during the '70s and '80s, playing a similar countercultural role in the African nation the one Bob Dylan played in the United States during the '60s, combined with political themes more like those of Bob Marley. But neither comparison is exactly accurate. Fela essentially invented a new genre of music, which he called Afrobeat, after studying music in London and then spending time in the United States, where he was exposed to James Brown and other musicians.

Fela synthesized elements of jazz, funk and Yoruba into butt-swinging, trance-inducing songs that can only be properly described by actually listening to them, or better yet, getting up and moving around while it streams into your ears. They're quite long, regularly more than 20 minutes, and depend on repetition and a perfectly executed groove to keep things moving forward.

But more than a musician, Fela was a rebel and a troublemaker for the Nigerian government of the time. He was the son of a prominent family that was wealthy, educated and among the most staunch reformers. His mother was the first woman to drive a car in the country and the first Nigerian woman to visit China, according to the film. But rather than follow the same path as other members of his family, he chose to study music and rebel, saying "music is the weapon," a theme repeated again and again in the film.

Perhaps his most well-known track, "Zombie," caricatured the military and soldiers who blindly followed orders. It was banned from the radio, despite extreme popularity with the people, and led to a raid on his compound called Kalakata Republic, where many were beaten, raped and even killed. His mother was dragged upstairs by the military and thrown from a second-story window.

He used weapons other than music as well, housing and employing dozens of people at Kalakata Republic, which was surrounded by an electrified fence. He married 27 women simultaneously, bucking Western and African marriage norms in the process. He led demonstrations and held weekly conversations with his fans about the political situation in the country at his club, the Africa Shrine.

It was all of these things that led to near-constant raids, beatings — in short, the "trouble" that his son Femi describes in the film.

Gibney called the doc "an extraordinarily complex weave of different kinds of elements," and that's where the problems lie. For such an interesting and difficult figure, the film is brief and lacks the depth Gibney was able to achieve with work like "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "Client 9."

The original impetus for the project was to follow the Broadway musical "Fela!" on a trip to perform the work back in Nigeria. Performances of the play, interviews and archival footage are all spliced together, sometimes compellingly and sometimes distractingly.

The play's director, Bill T. Jones, gets a lot of screen time, but of course, he never knew or studied Fela or his music before signing on to the Broadway project. His thoughts sometimes seem a bit off when placed next to interviews with Fela's children, a former wife and his bandmates.

The film also spends a lot of time on the quirks of Fela's personality, like his polygamy and strange religious beliefs during the 1980s, while largely ignoring the impact of his life on Nigerians or the results of his nonmusical activities and aspirations.

It is not able to combine its various elements quite as well as Fela was able to combine so many musical styles into his compositions.

Still, it's a very different kind of documentary from Gibney's other works, and regardless of the flaws, is totally engaging, emotionally charged and quite entertaining. —

Finding Fela screenings

Tuesday, Jan. 21 • 9 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Theatre, Salt Lake City

Saturday, Jan. 25 • 7 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2, Park City.