My Friend Fela SBIFF 2020

My Friend Fela Reviewed by Zane Stull

Sadly the documentary does not really focus on his musical achievements. Instead it focuses on his political activism and the civil rights leaders he gained inspiration from. The close personal relationships, highlighted by his biographer Carlos Moore and his run-ins with the oppressive military regime of his homeland Nigeria were the most interesting parts of the movie for me. Of course the close relationship we get the best view of his is that with Carlos Moore. He is the audience’s primary guide through the film. He details his meeting with Fela, hanging around during the heyday of his musical career and then being witness to the beginnings of Fela’s paranoia.

The story the film chose to tell was interesting but it felt a little distracted. I wish there had been more interest in using his music to direct the story telling. Instead the movie uses latter day interviews to tell a strictly chronological story. As I said, I really enjoyed the parts of the film that focused on the music: the development of the Afrobeat genre, interviews with his collaborators, etc. I was hoping that some of his work with Ginger Baker and other rock icons (which is how I became familiar with Fela, as I suspect many Americans did) would be included in the film. But I respect that the filmmakers, including Carlos Moore, his biographer, wanted to keep the focus on his impact and life experiences in Nigeria and Africa. I liked the graphics and the old school documentary footage of Lagos in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It did give me a sense of how different his world is from mine.

I found the narrative about his political rise and fall somewhat incoherent; I think mainly because the film tried to make most of the things personal to Fela and excluded the broader national political context.  And I would have liked more emphasis on his story as a musician. And even with its emphasis I didn’t gain a clear understanding of his paranoia and other abusive attitudes. Fela was an incredible and inspiring individual but I feel from this film that part of his story is still missing.

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