Tagged: Bio-documentary

Piero Vivarelli, Life as a B Movie (Italy 2019)

Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.

Vivarelli appearing as the saxophonist in Urlatori alla sbarra (Howlers of the Dock, 1960)

The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.

Franco Nero as Django

Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.

The documentary’s directors offer this statement:

To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.

Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.

Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli

Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.

Late in his life, Vivarelli (right) with Fidel Castro

Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.

Ingrid Bergman: in her own words (Jag är Ingrid, Sweden-Denmark-Germany 2015)

I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.

Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.

A still from her first screen test for Selznick

Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).

In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.

Ingrid with her three children by Roberto Rossellini

What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says  “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh,  vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.

Bergman’s beauty remained throughout her life . . .

I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised  that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.

[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]

Diego Maradona (UK 2019)

Maradona has media attention at San Paolo in Napoli

This is the third documentary biopic by Asif Kapadia following Senna (UK 2010) and Amy (UK 2015). It certainly matches the brilliance of those two earlier films. Kapadia, editor Chris King and music composer Antonio Pinto have again excelled themselves in creating a compelling narrative from found footage (mostly from the subject’s own archive) and audio interviews. I don’t think, however, that the three subjects are necessarily comparable. Certainly they each had careers with stellar periods and a strong emotional bond with fans but although they were both South American sporting legends, Ayrton Senna and Diego Maradona came from different backgrounds and the impulses behind the endings of their careers were quite different. Amy Winehouse was in some ways equally troubled by her attempts to deal with success and her emotional life as was Maradona but the music industry of the 2000s provides a different context to football in the 1980s.

Maradona, World Cup winner in Mexico 1986

If you don’t know the Maradona story, the film is mainly concerned with the period Diego Maradona spent as a footballer at Napoli between 1984 and 1991. He was 23 when he signed for Napoli after two seasons at Barcelona and 30 when he left Napoli. There is some coverage of his childhood and early career and a brief coda about what happened when he left Napoli. The focus on this period also includes his appearances with the Argentinian national team which won the the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and were beaten finalists in ‘Italia 90’ – West Germany were the opponents on each occasion.

Asif Kapadia is a football fan according to his tweets about supporting Liverpool. Yet one of the odd points about his Maradona film is that, despite a lot of footage from games featuring Napoli and Argentina, the film does not explore football itself in the way that Senna seemed to me to be partly ‘about’ motor racing. However, I did find the football match footage fascinating. Maradona made goals for other players that were deceptively simple but often scored goals himself that seemed to be magical in the way he bent the ball. The primary focus of the film is the footballer’s psychological profile which is outlined here by his personal trainer at Napoli.

Diego with his parents

The personal trainer tells us that Diego the young man is vulnerable because of his insecurities. He is a family man close to his mother and a likeable person. Maradona the footballer, bought for the then record transfer fee of $6.9 million in 1984 is, by contrast, constructed to survive in top class football. He develops a carapace to protect himself and his skills. ‘Maradona’ is a much more troubling character who looks for diversions in the wrong places when he is not training and playing. The narrative of his life then becomes the story of how ‘Maradona’ becomes almost a God in Naples before destroying himself and almost destroying Diego. Kapadia called his film ‘Diego Maradona’ – both names – whereas the earlier films, ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’, used only one.

As in the other films, the archive footage tells the story through the edit, with ‘witness’ interviews played in audio over the archive material. I don’t think anyone is interviewed on screen by Kapadia or his team, though there are several archive interviews. The film flows because of the brilliance of the editing decisions, both what to include and how to cut it, and the music. It runs for 130 minutes and though some have suggested the match footage could be shortened, most football fans will want to see all of it – partly because we are offered different viewpoints than was usual for 1980s TV coverage. Because most of the footage is from video recordings or 8mm film the disparity between 35mm film and video is not so pronounced. The two World Cup finals and a later Argentinian TV interview from 2004 stand out in terms of higher definition. I assume that the video material has been cropped in many cases but I was so taken up with the pace of the narrative that I didn’t notice any changes of aspect ratio or obvious cropping.

One other difference in this Kapadia film is the importance of Napoli as a location, but also as a ‘character’ in the story. I hadn’t realised just how much Napoli was seen as an underperforming club in Serie A before Maradona’s arrival or how much the North-South divide mattered in Italian football. Napoli’s stadium, San Paolo was finally completed in 1959 but when Maradona is first introduced to fans at the stadium in 1984 I was struck by the long walk to the pitch from the bowels of the stadium with high walls over which the crowds could see Maradona emerging on the pitch. I was reminded of gladiators entering the arena in Roman times. Later, when Maradona reached his highest status with the fans, murals began to appear  claiming him as the modern manifestation of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint.

What most intrigued me was the inclusion of two or three soundbites in which Maradona is referred to (in the subtitles) as “this black kid from a poor neighbourhood”. Kapadia clearly chose these clips but the format doesn’t really allow any discussion of the implication that some of Maradona’s problems come from the prejudice that his family faced in Argentina and elsewhere. I was reminded of the not dissimilar case of Luis Suaréz who has been a highly successful South American player in European football for over ten years, but like Maradona he has also been embroiled in various controversial incidents (all on the field). In 2011 as a Liverpool player Suaréz was banned for eight matches and fined for using racist language in an altercation with Patrice Evra. Suaréz did not accept the charge, claiming that the use of terms for ‘black’ in Latin America was different to that in Europe. There is a long tradition of South American players signing for clubs in Spain and Italy, but in the 1980s the film suggests that Maradona still felt an outsider.

Asif Kapadia does include the moment when Maradona became notorious in England with the ‘hand of God’ goal in Mexico – but also scored one of the greatest World Cup goals. The link is made to the Malvinas War which I’m sure was a worrying time for Argentinians as well as for those of us in the UK who didn’t support Thatcher’s war. I noted that the footage of the game in Mexico revealed some horrendous English fouls as the players sought in vain to negate Maradona’s influence on the game.

Maradona celebrates with his daughter, Dalma(?)

Overall, although I really enjoyed the film and I recommend it highly, I’m wondering now if there is enough worthwhile material to make a longer documentary serial for TV. I’d like to know more about football culture and institutions in Italy, Argentina and worldwide in the 1980s and I’d also like a little more about ‘Diego’ as well as about Maradona.

Janis: Little Girl Blue (US 2015)

This recent music doc/biopic offers an interesting comparison with 20 Feet From Stardom (US 2013). Whereas that film seemed to me to have wonderful material but lacked a clear focus, this documentary knew exactly what it was doing and achieved a great deal with the limited material available. I have to confess a strong sense of nostalgia watching the film about the brief career of Janis Joplin which lasted not much longer than four years. The performances on film look better now than I remembered from earlier films and I learned quite a bit more about the difficult life that Janis had – and the tragic circumstances of her death.

This Janis Joplin doc arrived in cinemas just a few months after Amy, the Amy Winehouse doc. Both films must have been in production at the same time so I don’t see one prompting the other. It is remarkable though that the ‘last acts’ of the two films feature the same event. Both young women died from an overdose at the age of 27 (Winehouse in 2011). Janis died in 1970 a few weeks after Jimi Hendrix and a few months before Jim Morrison. Both these young men were also 27. The big difference between the Joplin and Winehouse docs is that the latter includes lots of ‘found footage’ , including social media footage as well as ‘mainstream media’, whereas there are relatively few filmed recordings of Joplin apart from the three well-known festival films.

Janis Joplin was born in the Texas town of Port Arthur, close to the Louisiana border, in 1943 into a middle-class family. She was a misfit at school who discovered she could sing at 17. Her singing career started in Austin but didn’t really begin to develop until she moved to San Francisco in 1963. Even then she lasted only two years before returning to Port Arthur to ‘clean up her act’. She finally made it when she returned to San Francisco in 1966. Over the next four years she sang with three bands and recorded four LPs, the last one, ‘Pearl’, being released posthumously (a double LP of live recordings then appeared in 1972). Joplin was first signed as the singer for Big Brother & The Holding Company (first two LPs) and then became a solo artist backed by first the Kozmic Blues Band and then the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She died in her motel room during the recording of ‘Pearl’. The cause of death was an overdose of heroin, assumed to be accidental (the drug may have been more potent than she expected).

Three of Joplin’s festival performances at Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1970) and on the Festival Express train across Canada (1970) were filmed and subsequently appeared as theatrical documentaries, the first two a few months after the festival in question. The Festival Express material was released as a documentary film in 2003. Various live footage sequences appeared in a Canadian documentary, Janis in 1974 and this is the film I saw in the cinema in 1975. There are numerous other DVDs of her performances but only the four cinema features, I think. There was a fictional biopic The Rose (US 1979) directed by Mark Rydell. This commercially successful film is only loosely based on Joplin’s story (it was initially known as ‘The Pearl’) but was recognised as such by audiences (without taking anything away from Bette Midler’s star-making performance in the lead role).

The director of Janis: Little Girl Blue is Amy Berg, an experienced documentarist and director of at least one interesting-sounding fiction feature. The film also has a host of producers including Alex Gibney, known for high-profile docs such as Finding Fela (2014) and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). It’s not surprising then that this Janis doc works so well. Berg’s focus is clearly on Janis as a young woman finding her way in the world and this forms the narrative spine using the letters that Janis wrote home and a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings and still photos (which seem to jump out from the screen when set in the context of grainy home movie footage and 1960s TV news and features shot on 16mm). The authorial voice of Janis is provided very effectively by Chan Marshall (a.k.a. the singer Cat Power). Events back in Port Arthur are narrated by Janis’ younger siblings Laura and Michael and by one or two old schoolfriends. Events in San Francisco are covered by a slew of taking heads including friends and lovers and band members plus other media figures such as CBS CEO Clive Davis, talk show host Dick Cavett and documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (who made Monterey Pop and tells us how he deliberately sought out Cass Elliott in the audience because he knew about the rivalry between the LA and SF acts – Mama Cass was suitably impressed by Janis). The one recurring image in the film is the single line railway track, presumably seen from the Festival Express train as it moves across Canada. This occurs at regular intervals in the film, seemingly functioning as a marker for the change from one sequence to another. I’m not sure if the symbolic readings of this image are intentional but it might refer to the trajectory of the short life of Janis Joplin – straight down the line as if decreed by fate.

Janis as hippy momma

Many of these films about performers and celebrities seek out the flaws in character or attempt to find those responsible so that a life becomes more like a mystery in a film noir. I don’t think this happens with Little Girl Blue, which feels like a humanist drama. Most of those interviewed are appreciative about Janis’ talent and her dedication to her art. She was let down by the men in her life and the party girl was more often the lonely girl. The film doesn’t analyse the music but presents it (with access to rights agreed by Sony) in ways which enable us to understand why it generated such interest. It certainly sent me back to the performances (and I realised that I knew some of her ‘between songs’ tales almost by heart on the live album). It is this sense of the rapport Janis had with her audience that stands out. She seems to have been happiest on stage – and lonely when the show ended. There is also a strong feminist sub-text about a young woman whose confidence was undermined by the cruel jibes about her looks made by university students in Austin when she first began to perform. She must have welcomed the chance to take on the guise of the hippy mama who could dress as she pleased – partly as a release from the restraints of her conventional home background.

Coming from a town with its own Klu Klux Klan chapter, Janis would have been conscious of her other identity shift which involved discovering Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin and being wowed by Otis Redding. Perhaps this where the film’s lack of deep analysis of Janis’ musical career is a weakness. I think you need to know a lot about American popular roots music in the 1960s and 1970s to understand the changes in the music Janis Joplin made and what she was most comfortable with.

After I’d seen this documentary, I came across a 2000 BBC documentary about Janis from the ‘Reputations’ series narrated by Tracy Macleod. At 48 minutes it is much shorter but actually much more informative about Janis’ life as a teenager in Port Arthur and her time in San Francisco. I think that I’ve also left out the Joplin parents in my account above. They didn’t take to the music Janis was producing or her lifestyle, but they were still supportive when she needed them. I recommend watching the shorter documentary (link below) in conjunction with Little Girl Blue.

Finding Fela (US 2014)

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

My initial response to this film was to query why I had forgotten so much of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s – and then wonder whether I had ever known about it in the first place. The latter seems unlikely since Fela Kuti, the subject of this documentary, was a prominent figure in both music and political struggle in Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s. When I got home I discovered some of his music in my collection. I think perhaps I was more interested in Francophone African music or South African jazz at the time – in which case this film was instructive but also left me wanting more.

Fela Kunti was born into a middle class Yoruba family in 1938. His mother was a significant figure in the Nigerian struggle against British colonialism and his father became a prominent educationalist. His elder brothers trained as doctors but Fela turned to music, abandoning Trinity College in London and discovering jazz. He arrived back in now independent Nigeria in the early 1960s after developing his skills in high-life music in Ghana. From then on he developed his own style later dubbed ‘Afrobeat’ and his Afrika Shrine club in Lagos became a focal point for music fans and also for dissent in the face of oppression by the succession of military leaders in Nigeria – some of whom were well-known to Fela and his family.

Finding Fela is a documentary by the suspiciously prolific Alex Gibney who appears to produce two or three high profile documentary films each year. This one runs to 120 mins – which is both a tad long for my taste but also not long enough to explore all the potential stories crammed into Fela’s relatively short life (he died in 1997). (By African standards it was, of course, a relatively long life and the fact that he died of AIDS seems symbolic in some way.)

Gibney’s approach is to hang his story on the preparations for and extracts from the Broadway musical Fela! first seen ‘Off Broadway’ in 2008 as written by Bill T. Jones and  Jim Lewis. We are taken by Jones through the difficult decisions about how to stage the show and how to deal with Fela’s music and his lyrics – which basically recount his activities and what he made of their impact. Intercut with this is a chronology represented via archive footage and interviews with those closest to Fela, including his children, manager, band colleagues and prominent fans. There are also several interviews with Fela Kuti himself so he is able to speak to us directly.

The more I reflect on the experience of watching the film, the more frustrated I feel. The film is well made and its narrative flows easily so that I was never bored – but none of the stories were developed as much as I wanted. More on high-life and how it became Afrobeat would have been good. More background on the family and the politics of Nigeria in the 1960s and 1970s would also have been good – but couldn’t have been achieved in a single feature. Gibney’s use of the Broadway musical and Fela’s American contacts gives the whole film an American or perhaps African-American feel. This is interesting, especially given the recent developments in links between Nigerian filmmakers and the diaspora audiences in the US. However, the film’s commentary offers the audience two assertions/observations that are more intriguing. One raises the comparison with Bob Marley – is Fela Kuti a similar figure as a ‘Third World Superstar’? Why is he more difficult for an American audience to understand? The second assertion is that Fela Kuti is second only to Nelson Mandela as an icon of popular resistance in Africa during the 1980s. I’m not sure about either of these observations but I am intrigued that my memory is that music from Francophone West Africa and from South Africa/Zimbabwe made more impact with me than the Nigerian/Ghanaian variety. Why? Fela Kuti sang in English for much of the time. Was he more likely to look towards the US? The documentary quotes his reactions to the racism he experienced in London in the late 1950s and how later he ‘re-learned’ African history after reading Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, writings introduced to him by American contacts. Again, I would have liked more on this.

Gibney has made his name with documentaries that focus on ‘fallen’ men (most recently Lance Armstrong) and Fela Kuti’s later career saw him increasingly interested in forms of African culture that eventually found him involved with a Ghanaian magician of doubtful repute. He was also criticised because of his approach to his marriage and his sexual adventures. This is covered in the latter stages of the film but I’m not sure about the way in which the transition from ‘heroic’ to ‘lost’ is handled in the film. There were a couple of clips from Channel 4 in the UK (Black on Black and a Muriel Grey interview) that weren’t properly captioned and that makes me think that this documentary was rushed. Overall, the view of Fela Kuti presented seems superficial, somehow less than the sum of the different parts of the film. I wonder what a filmmaker with more understanding of West African culture might have produced with the same access to the archives and personnel presented here. I suspect that they might not have used quite so much footage of the Broadway show and might have dug a bit deeper into the Nigerian experience.

The official US trailer: