Documentary film review: ‘Finding Fela’

By Ruby Thomas, ONE New York Congressional district leader

Fela Kuti

It’s World Cup season and what a frenzy the world is in! People are sporting enthusiastic patriotism and global camaraderie amongst fellow soccer fans for the teams and players from the many different countries.

Nigeria is a strong contender, and while we admire this country’s players for their fine athletic abilities on the World Cup field, ONE New York had an amazing opportunity to view a special screening about another extraordinary Nigerian, Fela Kuti, in the Sundance Film Festival-featured documentary, “Finding Fela,” here in New York City at the Bryant Park Hotel.

Watch the trailer here:

Producer and visionary Stephen Hendel and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney have created an authentic, first-rate film and takes us all on an insightful and spiritual journey throughout the life of this African icon, a musical genius who inspired the world by using his music as a weapon for political activism.

Finding Fela is an elegant blend of rare film footage of Fela throughout his life, moving interviews of family, friends, and notable musicians inspired by Fela such as Questlove from The Roots and Sir James Paul McCartney from The Beatles and behind-the-scenes takes from his namesake musical production.

Fela Kuti came from a very educated and distinguished Nigerian family, his father was a Christian minister/school principal and his mother, who was his strongest influence, was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement. Following in his brothers’ footsteps, he was going to study medicine, but decided to study music instead.

He was musically influenced by highlife and jazz with inspirations coming from soulful musicians like Miles Davis and James Brown. Later, Fela furthered his music by creating a new style, Afrobeat, which took the continent by storm.

The music is a fusion of jazz, highlife, funk, rock, African chants and rhythms and played by a colossal band of various instrumentalists with dancers. Each track was about 15-30 minutes long.

Stephen Hendel and Ruby_350

Producer Stephen and ONE leader Ruby at a special screening of “Finding Fela”

When asked about why each of his songs was so long, he answered, “Have you heard of Bach and Beethoven? Do they have short songs? They just kept on playing until they felt the need to stop.”

While Fela and his band were in the United States, he learned of the Black Power movement and it heavily influenced his music and political views. When he returned to Nigeria, his lyrical themes changed from love to more social issues. He was continuously persecuted for speaking his mind, but that didn’t stop him even when it led to his mother’s death. It only made him stronger and his music advanced to more deeply rich lyrics and sound.

After the film was over, there was a Q&A session. Someone asked what inspired Stephen to create this film. He answered, “I just picked up a CD from the store and started listening to it.”

It was incredible to some of us in the audience because the movie has an aura of pure genuine love for Fela and creates an assumption that Stephen must be family or very close friends with Fela, when in fact, he only knew him through his music.

Maybe it was the spirit of Fela using Stephen as his vessel to bring his music to the global audience. We’ll never know. What we do know is, Finding Fela is a masterpiece of cinematic genius and does justice to his legacy. The Fela frenzy will continue for generations because of it.

Finding Fela” comes out in theaters on August 1, 2014. For more information, go to findingfela.com.