As one of the first Sub-Saharan counter culture heroes, Fela Kuti has inspired generations with his music and message. In 2009, award-winning director and choreographer Bill T. Jones looked at Fela’s relative ambiguity and decided to co-create the Broadway play Fela! A few awards and nominations later comes Alex Gibney’s film, Finding Fela! which aims to act as a supplementary piece to the 2009 Broadway musical.

The film did a remarkable job of chronicling Fela’s life in contrast with Sahr Ngaujah’s incredible performance in the musical for gravitas. Jones played a central role as one of the interviewees within the film and spoke about how difficult it was to capture the many sides of Fela within the musical.

Finding Fela! is a great portrait of a man whose music is known by many, but whose story is known by few.

While there was precedent set with many renowned cross-cultural musical icons like Bob Marley, Fela’s relatively unknown stature is what prompted Jones to co-create the Broadway play. Fela’s songs would often go as far as 45 minutes in length and it would take a truly sophisticated ear to appreciate his brand of music. The film expanded on this unique detail by delving into Fela’s early influences. More importantly, it attempted to humanize an individual who at times could be described as larger than life.

From the beginning, Fela’s love for Highlife music really drove the direction of his compositions. Long-time drummer Tony Allen reminisced about introducing Fela to jazz and expanding his musical palette. Fela combined his love of Highlife, jazz and soul music, particularly James Brown, to create his unique Afrobeat sound.

There were great stories littered throughout the film including a tale about Fela hiding his love of marijuana from his band, only to later find out they’ve all been smoking for years. The film’s more controversial points were handled deftly, from his relationships with his 27 wives to his stint in jail for currency smuggling. The musical as well as the film made no effort to hide these truths and explored them without glorification.

A good portion of the documentary dealt with his time at The Shrine, a nightclub where Fela could not only spread his wings and deliver his political commentary to his people, but also host traditional ceremonies. The venue attracted attendees like Paul McCartney and was a central space for his own revolutionary messages.

With rare footage of performances and stories told by those who knew him best, Finding Fela! is a great portrait of a man whose music is known by many, but whose story is known by few.

Words By. Sean Watson