"Finding Fela," a multi-layered documentary that focus on the music and human rights message of Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti, exceeded expectations on the first day of the Sundance Film festival, receiving an enthusiastic response at the premieres that extended to the Internet and, naturally, the premiere party at the Sundance Channel HQ space in Park City.
Director Alex Gibney, who approved the picture, edit and sound mix at the last minute and was seeing the finished film for the first time at the premiere, said that just two days earlier he had been uploading footage of Fela's funeral in 1997. Rarely seen footage and the story-telling impressed well-wishers and Twitter commenters; Gibney was chuckling when he read to his producers a positive Tweet written in German.
"We struggled for a long time trying to find still images," Gibney said over beers after the premiere. "The hard part was finding a way to put in material that speaks to Fela's process and quickly sliding in back story (images). We were having trouble finding still images of (Fela's drummer) Tony Allen, for example, and he's a key character. When we found them, things like his report card, they become magical."
When he took on the project, Gibney's task was to chronicle the staging of the Broadway musical "Fela!" in the late African singer's native Lagos, Nigeria. As he looked for a deeper creative arc within the footage shot during the creation of the musical, he found a much deeper throughline that lives up to the title of the film.
"Finding Fela" works on multiple levels. It is most clearly a descriptor of the path "Fela!" director Bill T. Jones takes in the development of the show, but it extends to Sahr Ngaujah figuring out how to play Fela, how his children, among them the musicians Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, learned about their father and how musicians, whether they played with him or not, came to learn about Fela and his music.
"Bill is talking about (the song) 'Zombie' and (asking the actors) to improvise to find a way into the story and then to the essence of the character," Gibney says. "I thought 'wow, I get it. There's a path he's creating and we're dogging (him) and then branching out."
Besides the creators of the musical, "Finding Fela" includes new interviews with ?uestlove Thompson of the Roots, Paul McCartney talking about hearing Fela while recording parts of "Band on the Run" in Lagos and musicians who played in Fela's Africa 70 and Egypt 80 bands. Rikki Stein, who managed Fela in the last 15 years of his life and coordinated efforts to reissue Fela's entire catalog (Knitting Factory handled in the U.S.), is featured prominent throughout.
In many ways the film connects with the notion at the genesis of the stage play when producer/co-creator Stephen Hendel asked after purchasing a Fela CD, why don't more people know this man and his music? The two-hour film includes only about 15 minutes of footage from the stage musical, though it make evident the manner in which Fela's family had embraced the project.
"In the first few versions, the parallel with the show always struggled a bit," Hendel said. "It's seamless now. (Re-edited) the movie has gained in depth and importance."
To celebrate the film, the Fela! Band gave the first of its three Sundance performances at the Sundance Channel HQ. Among those on hand to dance and chat with Gibney, Stein and Hendel were the film's producer Jack Gulick, Knitting Factory Entertainment CEO/president Morgan Margolis, KF brand strategy director Brad Spencer donning a unique Fela T-shirt, the musical's co-writer Jim Lewis, "Before Midnight" director Richard Linklater, whose "Boyhood" is at the festival, and Cinetic Media founder John Sloss, who is handling sales on the film.
"Finding Fela" screens again on Jan. 21 in Salt Lake City and Jan. 25 at Redstone Cinema in Park City.
The Fela! Band's other scheduled performances were Jan 18 at the Sundance Music Cafe hosted by KCRW and on Jan. 19 at the Sundance House as part of the Sundance Institute's Film Music Program's Celebration of Music in Film.