As with so many celebrated black singers, Kuti’s origins were humble: the Church was where his music career started. History often dictates the lives of these icons however; Kuti was soon politicised through an activist mother in the 1960s and sharply realised the potential of his music to empower, inform and mobilise the people of Nigeria against an oppressive military regime. The title of Gibney’s film speaks to this constant search for identity, will and action. The film handpicks key moments in Fela’s life: his decision to reject medicine and study music, listening to James Brown, witnessing the Black Panthers – all of which crystallised his views but enriched his music.
Gibney’s pairing with that of the Broadway musical is a small stroke of genius as we find Fela both in a fictional sense, appreciating how difficult it is to put this man’s life on stage, while witnessing a real jumble of characters. Fela is not deified in any way, though he may have been guilty of this himself, and held accountable for the uncontrollable womanising in the name of free love, his indifference towards his children and his irresponsibility with sexual health. Undoubtedly however, this could even be further pressed upon by Gibney. That’s not to say the film is a damning indictment; it cherishes the bravery and conscience of a man who risked his life daily in the face of a brutal Nigerian military who would constantly beat and harass him.
Most attractive is that there’s something for everyone in Gibney’s film. Afrobeat and Jazz fans will not walk away unserved, the politics is raw and urgent, the production is artful, the storytelling immensely thoughtful. It is a sound examination of music as weaponry, politics as showmanship, protest as performance. There’s a real sense that we’re on a journey with the filmmakers who have set out to discover the ideologies, anxieties, battle-cries, dreams and failures of a man who hasn’t been in the public consciousness for some time. The ideas he put forth about government, racial segregation, corporate greed and colonisation means that losing him again simply isn’t an option.