Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician who defined Afrobeat, influenced everyone from Paul McCartney to Michael Jackson. Now, with Finding Fela, Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (The Armstrong Lie) sheds new light on the politically fiery artist with never before seen footage and documents, including Kuti’s report card (there’s a reason he wasn’t a doctor like his brothers). By framing the biography of the musician (Kuti who died from AIDS-related complications in 1997) through rehearsals for Bill T. Jones’ Tony-winning musical Fela!, Gibney presents two stories in one – the staging of a complicated production and the life of a dissident legend.
“One of the things that makes Fela a glorious character is that he was deeply contradictory,” Gibney says, sitting on a bench in Park City, Utah, following a screening of the film at the Sundance Film Festival. “He was flawed and also magnificent. That’s what makes him interesting.”
Broadway producer Stephen Hendel approached the prolific filmmaker while prepping his musical for an overseas run in Nigeria. “The documentary set out to be, ‘How do you take a show like this – which is the epitome of the first world – to the third world where it originated?'” Gibney says. Gradually, he says, the life of the artist became the story.
Culled from more than 1,200 hours of new footage, the narrative follows Kuti from his bourgeois childhood to his discovery of music, women and mysticism. It also traces his massive musical, political and emotional contribution to the landscape of sub-Saharan Africa. The film pairs dress rehearsals, backstage brainstorming and concert footage with interviews from several Kuti kids as well as Questlove, Africa ’70 bandleader Tony Allen and McCartney, who visited the musician while recording Band on the Run in Lagos. By digging into the core of Kuti, Gibney offers deeper context for his sound as well as his treatment of women and bizarre behavior, which included adopting the guru Dr. Hindu.
”The motivation was to make America aware of this amazing artist’s story,” Hendel says. “It’s one of the great stories of sacrifice for your art, and music as the weapon.”