In 2009, the Broadway musical Fela! opened in New York. Oscar-winning, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney interviews Bill T. Jones, the choreographer and one of the creative forces who produced Fela!. Jones talks about the making of the musical, while Gibney parallels the producing of the musical to also tell the story of the musical's real-life subject, Nigeria's most famous musician, Fela Kuti, the development of his style of music, as well as his political activism.
Gibney also interviews friends and family. Thankfully, there's a lot of footage of Kuti through the 1960's and 1970's, including radio and on-camera interviews. There was even a 1982 documentary called Music is the Weapon about Fela Kuti that Gibney adds here.
Gibney puts together a well-laid analysis of Kuti's music. We see its origins. We see its religious influences. We see other influences like from soul artists and Jazz arrangements. We see his process for crafting songs, lyrically and otherwise. We see his role in ushering or inspiring this movement known as Afrobeat. Kuti compares himself though to Beethoven and Bach, but we also see allusions to Kuti being Nigeria's James Brown or Michael Jackson in terms of his perfectionism.
Yet, Fela was a polygamist who lived in a self-made commune. Most of the time, he's lounging around in nothing but his tiny and tight, underwear briefs. Normally, he's positioned with legs agape and his bulge clearly showing with numerous women all around, hanging off him. He's sexist. He's not that great a father, but he has bravado and swagger.
The other key difference is Fela's role as a political activist or political protester. Nigeria was in the midst of a brutal civil war. It's eventually revealed that a struggle over the country's oil leads to a lot of corruption, militarism and death. It doesn't seem as if Kuti is well educated on the intricacies and complexities of the issues, but he protests the corruption, militarism, poverty and death through his music.
As a result, he's arrested and abused. He was the subject of police raids. One of which ended with a close death to Kuti. A haunting moment is when Kuti shows off all his scars. Because he walks or sits around practically naked, the scars on his body aren't shocking. Also, his encounters with authorities and numerous imprisonments because of his activism held him up as second only to Nelson Mandela in terms of African figures.
There is much from the Broadway musical in this movie, but one thing it doesn't explore is Kuti's death in 1997. Jones didn't feel right including that in the stage show. If one can recognize that not all of the scars on Kuti's body aren't just from bruises, then how he died won't be surprising. What is surprising is his total ignorance or his being in total denial, given his siblings were doctors. However, his funeral proved his popularity in Africa.
Three Stars out of Five. Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences. Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins. Available on October 31st on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu, etc. Available on November 1st on Xfinity, Time Warner, etc.