Film Review – Finding Fela!
Musical documentaries are quickly becoming the most difficult to review. Music is one of the most subjective things to describe what is good and what is bad. Telling a Megadeth fan that Taylor Swift is an important artist and vice versa is not likely to go over well. So when one has to sit through a movie about a musician, the question is not just will the music work, but even if it doesn’t, will the musician as a subject matter be interesting enough? In the case of Finding Fela!, a documentary about the Nigerian singer Fela, the answer is sadly muddled.
Fela was famous for creating music he called Afrobeat, defined by Wikipedia as “Jazz, Funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian High-life, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms.” His songs could be thirty minutes long and would usually contain some social or political message about the corruption he saw in the Nigerian government, often combined with a group of gyrating women on stage next to him. And I didn’t like it. The message in some of the songs was interestingly developed. One song, “Zombies,” was used to describe the way the soldiers of the military government acted, being lockstep slaves to the system. Yet this kind of music is one I have never gotten into— Jazz, Funk and psychedelic rock sound the same to me and so, when it is playing, I do not hear what so many others hear. It doesn’t speak to me.
So what does this have to do with the film? Music is what defined him, so we get a good deal of his music and those sections bored me. This can’t be helped and if this is a problem for others, it would be good for them to know early on. Yet, as a personality, Fela, himself, is ripe for examination: a man born to the upper class, who takes to music and uses it as his way of protesting the corruption he sees around him. Not just talking about these issues of corruption, but putting himself out there living with the poor and helping those around him, while also having a personal life that would put most playboys to shame.
Beyond the figure himself, we have director Alex Gibney, a talent I have respected a lot, who created a favorite documentary of mine, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and has yet to come close to that level since. Here, his structure is solid. Beyond the usual combining archival images with conversations with Fela’s family and friends, he adds rehearsal scenes of a musical play Fela!, which gives us musical numbers about his life and also witnesses them trying to capture this complex human being. While using this play version of his life to examine Fela was different and changed the usual documentary formula, it also took away time that could have been used to flesh out more about Fela as a person. The film does well giving general background about a man I had never heard of, showing that he was important in his subculture of music and to the people of Nigeria. Yet, I never really connected with it fully. The music was a problem for me, but the sense of who Fela was, and his impact, felt muted.
The film showed how he suffered under the government and the pain it caused him, and touched on how his personal life hurt his family and friends. Yet, Fela is still a distant figure for me. I never connected with him as an individual and the times he lived in. Knowing nothing about Nigeria made some of the direct problems he had, appear distant to me. The details of his personal life and issues he had with his band felt washed over a little too easily and some more examination would have humanized him more. We know he had a wife when he started sleeping around, but little is given about what happened to her. It was said he was close to his mother, but the impact she had on him was never shown, just the aftereffects of her passing. It was difficult to feel engaged.
Researching more on Fela, it turned out that at one time director Steve McQueen was set to make a film with Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Fela. That possibility increased my excitement. Perhaps a film trying to make Fela into a character is what is needed, because he, as a subject, was not the problem here. What we have is good beginning background on a person who will never be able to be completely explained, but who is worth examining.