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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: 'Finding Fela' review

★★★★☆
Whilst drumming up support for his new Broadway musical, FELA!, producer Stephen Hendel described Nigerian Afrobeat exponent Fela Kuti as "without question one of the great composers and musicians and activists of the second half of the 20th century." It sounds like a bold claim on first consideration, but becomes all the harder to dismiss after soaking in the sights and sounds of prolific documentarian Alex Gibney's Finding Fela (2014). A soulful 'Felabration' of the magnetic Kuti, archive footage of the snake-hipped lothario is here interspersed with a live recording of the hugely successful FELA!, the first Broadway show to ever make the journey from New York to the bustling Nigerian capital city of Lagos.

Born into an affluent Christian family in Abeokuta, Nigeria, Fela Anikulapo Kuti began his musical journey in the church choirs of his youth. An academic "dunce" according to his eldest son, Kuti nevertheless found himself enrolled at London's prestigious Trinity College, where he first came into contact with the improvisational spirit of jazz. Blending this newly-found musical form with the uplifting highlife of his youth, Afrobeat was officially born. It was only when Kuti travelled to America, however - where he experienced the Civil Rights and Black Panther movements first-hand - that he began to use Afrobeat to express his anger and frustration at a postcolonial Nigeria tearing itself apart from the inside. Through interviews with his many friends, family members and ex-lovers, Kuti is fondly remembered by all.

Following in the tradition of such well-regarded contemporary music documentaries as Malik Bendjelloul's Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man and Jay Bulger's Beware of Mr. Baker (in which Kuti also features), Gibney's Finding Fela serves as a long overdue reassessment of a hugely influential artist who - until relatively recently - had been criminally overlooked by those outside of his home nation. That's not to say that this new doc in any way scolds and/or hamstrings viewers with no prior knowledge of its subject; if anything, the filmmakers have moved mountains to provide as rounded and comprehensive a portrait of the Afrobeat pioneer as was possible given the relatively sparse footage available. There's rarely a dull moment as Gibney flits between Hendel's necessarily simplified stage production and Kuti's real-life political persona: a man who taught his country that music could be their weapon against oppression.

Fela's womanising ways are addressed, although there is a feeling that both the documentary and musical merely recognise his questionable attitude towards the opposite sex rather than really critiquing its cultural roots (he was simply an "African male", we're told). It's easy to raise a smile at scenes of Kuti marrying 27 brides on the same day, yet the impact this had on his impressionable children is all-too briefly touched upon. Significantly, however, it was his on-off relationship with freethinking Angeleno Sandra Smith and his exposure to the likes of James Brown that led Fela to take up arms against Nigeria's repressive military regime - an act of war that would see violent reprisals take the life of his mother and leave him scarred both physically and emotionally. A great musician, then? Undoubtedly, but it's Kuti's the political activist who looks poised to capture the hearts and minds of a whole new generation thanks to Finding Fela.

For more info about Finding Fela, visit dogwoof.com/findingfela.

Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.

Daniel Green
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