Film 4 in the UK began a week of documentary screenings, kicking off with this Oscar-winning film about some of the most revered ‘backing singers’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I enjoyed the film which features some of the faces and the lives of the great singers who are often in the background as performers. Viewed objectively, however, it seemed to me that the film’s narrative was poorly constructed and we didn’t learn as much as we might about the dilemmas facing such singers, the industry in which they worked and the technical details about their performances. Later, I also came across the claims that some of the testimonies by the singers were perhaps misleading.
The film’s director, Morgan Neville, is a very experienced director of popular music documentaries, mostly for US TV, I think. He has explored a range of popular music forms – different genres, eras, stars etc. so I was a little surprised by some of the film’s missed tricks. The film focuses on a group of mainly African-American women, many the daughters of families rooted in gospel music and the church. Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer provide the main focus but there are others as well. We find out something about the stories of each of these women and also hear the commendations of stars like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting as well as record producer Lou Adler and various other industry personnel. My suspicion is that Neville and his team got carried away with some of the great stories that these women could tell and didn’t spend long enough working out what kind of narrative they wanted to construct. The film as a whole lacks a clear focus. Darlene Love has the longest and most emotional story – and she bears the brunt of the negative comments about her time contracted to Phil Spector. I did know about her problems with Spector (shared by many others) and she may well have ’embroidered’ her account a little, but she certainly deserves to be cut some slack.
One possibility might have been to explore the questions about race and gender in the industry a little more overtly. There is plenty of material but the only reference that is underlined is when Merry Clayton describes her own reaction to being asked to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (the film shows a Skynyrd performance with a Confederate flag as a backdrop). Later Ms Clayton is shown singing her version of ‘Southern Man’, the Neil Young song that prompted the Skynyrd backlash. There are also two references to white performers seeking out black backing singers to give the music more ‘soul’. The first explains that white backing singers were known as ‘readers’ because they could perform any song – but not necessarily ‘feel’ the music. The second reference is to the British singers like Mick Jagger and Joe Cocker who might need an addition of ‘authentic’ voices as white boys singing black music songs. Both these statements needed more examination, I think. The film uses rock for many of its examples and there is a familiar suggestion that while Spector, Ray Charles and Ike Turner may have exploited attractive young black women as singers (and dancers), the British acts tended to treat them more as professional performers. This matches similar claims about Tamla and Stax performers who were more appreciated by white UK audiences than white US audiences in the early years – and the claim that bands like the Stones helped to resurrect the careers of some of the blues acts (and made sure that they earned royalties). This may be just a romantic notion promoted by British journalists, but needs investigating. More pertinent is why none of the well-known black music journalists and scholars are interviewed about the racism in the industry.
The other central issue in the film is the question about why these performers, who clearly have great voices and great musical skills, have not become stars in their own right as solo performers or leading members of vocal groups. There are suggestions and the issue is explored. The one moment when a visual image seems to comment on the argument is when some of the industry personnel and Sting (who appears in awe of Lisa Fischer’s voice) suggests that the real ‘kick’ in singing together with other people is the feeling that your voice is melding with others and the experience becomes ‘spiritual’. We then see a flock of birds (are they starlings?) swarming together in a night sky and then breaking up again, only to reform their ‘murmurations’. This seems the moment when we really might get to an understanding of why some singers emerge as stars and sustain a career. We might argue that although some of the great backing singers have got better singing skills than the stars, they perhaps haven’t got the ego or the drive to be the star out front – or they recognise what to do but don’t want to ‘play the game? Sting is a singer whose music doesn’t always work for me and he has an image that suggests pretentiousness, but in his comments in this section he makes a lot of sense and is worth listening to. He argues that success depends on more than having the talent, the voice and the performance skills. He suggests that sometimes it’s just circumstances, chance/luck – his point is that those who succeed recognise this and deal with it. But just when this kind of analysis gets interesting it stops when someone suggests that it is autotuning that has changed the industry and record producers no longer need great singers if they can digitally manipulate the voice of someone who works as a celebrity/star.
I think this film operates at the level of a standard TV music documentary, albeit with a high level of performance clips and talking head interviews. The subject could also have been explored in relation to a wider range of industry practice issues. For instance, nearly all the examples derive from either rock music or major acts of R+B/soul music. It might be interesting to compare the use of other voices in aspects of traditional country, country-folk and country rock where typically backing vocals are supplied by other singers of equal status. Why is this? I remember a BBC4 documentary on the recordings by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris as ‘Trio’. The three voices came together beautifully but the three albums of material were spread over many years because each singer was contracted to different record labels. For live performances there were not as many problems perhaps? I suppose I’m saying that the film stimulates lots of debates but doesn’t know which is the focus and can’t cover them all in a satisfying way.
20 Feet From Stardom inhabits similar territory to Standing in the Shadows of Motown (US 2002) and also Secret Voices of Hollywood (UK 2013) about the dubbing of Hollywood musicals by singers who were not credited at the time. All these films are worth watching, but for an emotional documentary narrative about a singer who struggled for years to achieve the acclaim that her performances deserved, I’d go for Miss Sharon Jones! (US 2015), the story of the late Miss Jones and the Dap Kings.
In her second introduction of the Brazilian Weekender at HOME, Stephanie Dennison told us that music documentaries have been very popular in Brazil for the last few years and that Yorimatã was both critically and commercially successful in cinemas in 2015. She suggested that this was both surprising and encouraging since many audiences didn’t know about the two main subjects of the film – women who challenged conventional music industry ideas in the 1970s. This was my third documentary of the week and my second music documentary. Yorimatã has some things in common with Bayou Maharajah, but also several differences.
I don’t think I’ve seen a music documentary before in which all of the performers were unknown to me (apart from Gilberto Gil who makes a brief appearance). Coupled with my limited knowledge of Brazilian music styles this meant I found it a little difficult to discern the chronology of events. (The narrative is non-linear.) Other than that, however, I was captivated by the music and personalities of the two women who appear to have used just their first names – Luhli and Lucina – throughout their long careers. Here is the official trailer for Yorimatã which explains the title and introduces the story and the music. (The official website in Portuguese has some other interesting material, including the images used here.)
Luhli (sometimes Luli) and Lucina both began performing and recording in the 1960s as solo artists and with other performers. They got together in the early 1970s, forming a musical partnership that was exciting for them and for audiences and which lasted more than twenty years. They decided to become ‘independents’ and move away from the global music labels such as Philips and Polygram and took themselves off to live in the country – following, but in their own way, the similar trends in Europe and North America. The ‘music majors’ have always been global but, unlike Hollywood, they tend to put more effort into developing local ‘artists and repertoire’. They do so in conventional ways so Luhli and Lucina were seen as ‘radicals’. The living arrangements they made were also radical and ‘anti-conservative’ as they set up a family unit with photographer Luiz Fernando Borges da Fonseca. This three-way relationship was captured by Luiz and his archive of footage formed the basis for director Rafael Saar’s documentary (Saar is something of a specialist in music films). These archive clips are mixed with interviews, footage of the two women today, including recent performances with other musicians and archive clips of their earlier performances together.
The 1970s performances and the home movie footage of life in their rural retreat provide perhaps the most appealing sequences – enhanced by the grainy and colour-degraded qualities of the blown-up images. I was trying to think of what the British or American equivalents might be but I realised that the social and political differences between Brazil and the ‘North’ would have been an important factor. These images from Brazil seem at the same time more ‘homely’ and frankly more fun than 1970s hippy communes as depicted in Anglo-American music culture – but also more of a challenge to society since Brazil was under an authoritarian military dictatorship which arrested and exiled some musicians whose politics were deemed unacceptable.
In musical terms, however, it’s interesting that Luhli and Lucina made familiar moves towards musical forms that were more ‘roots’ orientated and sometimes more ‘spiritual’. But they also went through a phase of electrifying their music and becoming more rock-orientated. At this point I thought about Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and wondered how things might have been different if Sandy had had a close female collaborator and soulmate. The music of Luhli and Lucina remained in a Brazilian context and for musicologists there are references to samba and the ways in which African music and other foreign forms have been developed in a Brazilian context. The most surprising aspect of the women’s performances (apart from the appearance of the 10-string Brazilian guitar – viola caipira?) is their use of African drums (see the trailer above). We see them working to make these drums and the film begins and ends with a drumming performance.
I’m not sure if this film will get distribution outside Brazil (it did appear at Toronto) but I do hope somebody tries to make it happen. The sounds and images have stayed with me and audiences should get a lot from it. Some will enjoy the women’s strength and challenge to the social order. Others will enjoy the music. Everybody will get something from it. I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it.
Music documentaries appear in UK cinemas fairly regularly. Tonight I could choose between two and ironically the director of the one I didn’t choose was thanked in the credits of the one I did. However, I later discovered that Bayou Maharajah was actually on the festival circuit in 2013 and has had to wait three years for a release in the UK. It was worth the wait and it will play at various venues across the UK in the next month. See dates and venues on the Music Film Network website.
James Carroll Booker (1939-1983) was a New Orleans piano player who was considered a genius by the major musicians of the New Orleans scene – the ones featured in the film include Dr John, Irma Thomas, Neville Neville and the late Allen Toussaint. If you own any records produced in New Orleans between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, you will be able to hear James Booker backing the star name. Like many geniuses before him – and sadly many in the future perhaps – James Booker’s talent was difficult to corral and confine in a recording studio. His difficult early life left him with a propensity to develop a drug and alcohol addiction. He also had poor mental health, at some point lost an eye (various stories are recounted as to how this might have happened) and he was openly gay in the New Orleans bar scene of the period. But he could play piano (and alto and tenor sax) like an angel.
Bayou Maharajah is a conventional documentary by an inexperienced filmmaker. Lily Keber was working in a bar in New Orleans in 2006 when she first heard James Booker tracks on the jukebox and drinkers talking about Booker’s exploits. By 2010 she had raised $10, 000 on Kickstarter and started to collect material. Her documentary succeeds because, apart from having the enormous talent of James Booker at its core, the film does simple things very well. Keber has found Booker’s friends, admirers and colleagues and gathered interesting anecdotes. The talking heads are presented without gimmicks and the bulk of them are very engaging. Keber has also found archive recordings of Booker’s playing, sometimes on very degraded video material – and she hasn’t messed with the aspect ratios, hoorah! She’s also found high quality stills and she presents a mini master-class by Harry Connick Jr. (who became Booker’s eager pupil aged 12). Connick demonstrates the incredible keyboard techniques that underpinned Booker’s playing. As a non-pianist, I was very impressed. I suspect piano players will be suitably wowed.
It’s important in films like these to present at least one or two complete performances. That’s certainly the case here. Like too many other African-Americans of his generation, James Booker had to leave North America to find appreciative bookers and audiences in Europe. It’s interesting to see him appearing as a solo act in France and Germany. He appreciated the respect he was given in Europe but it didn’t encourage record companies in the US and he suffered badly from very low earnings for his session work on various recordings. Part of the problem was that Booker didn’t have a manager – no-one could manage him says one interviewee.
There is one almost avant-garde use of what I took to be ‘found footage’. A black and white film of one night at a New Orleans bar is speeded up to last only a few minutes as almost subliminal figures suddenly flash on screen. At the time I think I puzzled over what to make of this but on reflection it seems like an effective means of representing James Booker’s life in New Orleans. He was only properly appreciated by a few but his talent was such that his presence remains embedded in New Orleans music culture.
I never did find out why the film has the title ‘Bayou Maharajah’ but it fits somehow. James Booker could play everything from Chopin to jazz. Most of all though for me he captured that essential New Orleans sound and now I want someone to make a film explaining why New Orleans piano-playing is so distinctive – in both cultural and musical terms.
Here is the trailer plus a clip showing one of the archive performances. I hope these will convince you to look up this film:
This joyous documentary deserves a wide audience who will lap it up. I was going to categorise it as a music documentary but it has two other important elements. It is also about one woman’s fight against cancer – a difficult subject for documentary – and about her personal biography (which introduces themes about identity, racism and the music business).
I’d heard about Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings but never registered their music or knew much about them. It was wonderful to hear the music. I didn’t know the songs but the sound was so familiar – the mainly southern soul of the 1960s and 1970s with allusions to Stax, Atlantic, Chess, FAME etc. Although Jones is based in New York her family is still in Georgia and the North-South (and West) axis of the band led by Gabriel Roth, AKA Bosco Mann, harks back to the time of the link-up between Stax and Atlantic. Roth and Jones met up musically in the mid-1990s and ‘Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ was born soon afterwards. Miss Jones became a star later in life than most artists and she enjoyed a decade or more of success with live shows and records under the band’s own label, Dap Tone. Then in 2014 she started treatment for pancreatic cancer and the band’s future seemed uncertain. Somehow the band’s new recording was completed and a tour was organised even as Sharon recovered. It’s this period through 2014 and into the early part of 2015 which provides the drama in a documentary by two-time Oscar-winning documentarist Barbara Kopple (honoured for Harlan County, USA in 1976 and American Dream in 1991).
Kopple’s approach is to stick fairly close to Sharon Jones during her recovery from treatment when she convalesces with a friend, visits her family and finally gets back into recording and onto the road for live shows. During this time the singer talks about her life and the attitudes she met in the music business when she was told she was “too black, too short and not pretty enough”. You have to feel that this is the modern culture of Black Music in the US – it was once a question of whether you could sing and if you had ‘soul’ – Ms Jones clearly has both attributes. Kopple weaves her footage together effortlessly and intersperses it with band interviews and live performances. The screening was in the Centre for Contemporary Arts a couple of blocks down from the Glasgow Film Theatre, in the ‘Theatre’ space which had a big screen and good sound so these performances worked very well. (But I learned to accept an extra cushion for my next screening in this venue!)
Miss Sharon Jones! played at Toronto in September 2015 and the New York City Doc Festival a month or two later. A US release is expected in 2016 but as yet the film doesn’t have a distributor and Barbara Kopple’s Cabin Creek Films doesn’t seem totally geared up just yet. There is a Facebook page for the film and you can check out Cabin Creek Films and the band’s own website. I do hope that the film gets a cinema release in the UK. It’s a great story and although it would still work on TV, I think the live performances are best on a big screen with an audience.
There are several ways to approach Amy, already one of the biggest documentary box-office hits of recent years. One would be in terms of its fidelity/revelation for Amy Winehouse fans. I wasn’t one of those (although I admired the voice and followed some of the news stories) so I won’t go there. Instead, I think it’s worth considering a comparison with Senna (UK 2010), Asif Kapadia’s earlier documentary about the Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna.
Senna was in several ways a breakthrough cinema documentary, not only in terms of documentary practice, but also in the way that it was distributed – becoming one of the first cinema films to benefit from the changes in distribution brought about by digital projection. These enabled the film to ‘grow’ an audience over several weeks in the UK and to eventually attract filmgoers who were not necessarily fans of Ayrton Senna or motor racing. (The film eventually earned US$5 million in the UK and over US$5 million overseas.) It could be argued that one of the major reasons why this wider audience enjoyed the film was because the story was heavily ‘narrativised’. Asif Kapadia chose to present archive footage in such a way that the edited material ‘told’ the story of what happened to Senna without a controlling voiceover. Different voices on the soundtrack were used to overlay the footage (and again, with just a few exceptions, these were comments from the archive). The overall effect was to create something with a narrative structure similar to the fictional ‘sports biopic’ with recognisable conventional elements. Thus Ayrton Senna emerges as an attractive young man as well as an exciting and accomplished racing driver. As the hero he battles against a clearly defined rival in the form of Alain Prost as well as against the institutional elements of the sport, especially in battles about the safety of the sport. The story has a tragic ending that becomes what would be the ‘final act’ of a conventional biopic.
Amy was presented as a project to Asif Kapadia because of his success with Senna and the similarities between the story of the sports star and the music star. On Senna, Kapadia had access to all the material owned by FOM (Formula 1 Management) the single body in control of the sport. For Amy he had access to all the music produced under contract by Amy Winehouse for Universal Music. These were massive advantages since negotiating rights for such material would prove both expensive and time-consuming for other producers. My interest in this comparison is first to work through the similarities and differences between the two projects and then to try to assess what emerges from this analysis and what it ‘opens up’ in terms of ‘reading’ Amy. I’m not going to be able to complete the work until a DVD of Amy becomes available since close readings of sequences are going to be required. I’ve already worked on Senna for earlier student events and the notes for teachers from those events are available for Free Download here. At the moment I’ll restrict myself to a few first observations about the similarities and differences between the two films and their production contexts.
Both films are, at least potentially, linked via narrative structure to the biopic. Senna is clearly modelled on the sports biopic. Formula 1 is an interesting sport because it is now truly ‘international’ as well as being part of wider ‘motor sport’. This makes it attractive as the basis for an international commercial film. It also has the benefit of its presentation via technology – i.e. it is possible present credible fictional ‘sporting footage’. Football, despite being the world’s most watched sport has so far failed to produce major films partly because it isn’t possible to find actors who can play the game to the standard of internationally known star players. By contrast Rush (2013) made US$90 million worldwide as a drama based on the Formula 1 battle between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in the 1970s. Certain sports have generated celebrity figures and are associated with glamour. Arguably football is now approaching the point where star players are international celebrities, including in North America. Though it isn’t a biopic, Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) demonstrated that a small independent film could travel internationally, partly because of its association with a celebrity figure (who isn’t a character in the film). Perhaps the most frequently used material for fictional sports films comes from boxing. Boxing involves violence, ‘body spectacle’ and connections to both celebrity culture (boxers are often the best paid international sports stars) and , at least historically, elements of organised crime. Boxing also fosters the idea of fallen men ‘rising up’.
The sports biopic has much in common with the music biopic in terms of conventions. Both are likely to be biopics that focus more upon the teen to thirties period when young stars develop and reach the ‘top of their game’. Both deal with early struggles to develop talent and feature ‘breakthrough’ moments. Often young stars will have personal battles with competitors, struggles with their personal lives, conflicts with managers and official/institutional bodies and struggles with the impact of fandom. More recently, celebrity culture has become a major issue for both sports and music stars. The narrative events in both can be categorised as ‘private’ and ‘public’ – the public events have already been presented to TV audiences and mediated many times. Even those which are now mainly historical can be ‘known’ to modern audiences via DVDs etc.
However, music biopics are usually more popular than sports biopics. There are many more produced and some (e.g. Walk the Line, 2005) have been major international box office successes as well as awards winners. Audiences are going to be more familiar with the conventions and the stories themselves are often more accessible (we know the songs, we feel closer to the music industry than to the official bodies of sporting organisations). If Kapadia consciously constructed Senna as a sports biopic, did he do the same with Amy and the music bio? My initial reaction is that if he did, he left out many of the expected elements.
Amy and genre conventions
Perhaps because I didn’t follow the ‘real’ story as a fan, I’m more conscious of the ‘gaps’ in Amy as a music biopic. For example, the industrial aspect of the business is only lightly sketched in. Universal is the biggest of the music majors and a global corporation (owned by Vivendi in France). Amy Winehouse was signed to Island, a Universal label in the UK and to a different Universal label, Revolution, in the US. The label bosses do figure briefly in the film but the ‘signing process’, a generic feature of the music biopic, isn’t covered – nor is the success of the albums Frank (2003) or Back to Black (2006) presented in visual terms. Maybe this is a reflection on current music industry practices (i.e. chart positions, sales etc. are less important moments)? But it does seem to me that the narrative is more focused on the final act and hasn’t space for these conventional sequences. One consequence of this is that the film tends to lose any sense of the economics that underpin the singer’s lifestyle. We know she has become rich, but what does this mean? She seems to be in rehab or spending six months in St. Lucia – how does this relate to pressure re contracts to produce records and to make live appearances? I was quite confused by the events leading up to the gig in Belgrade – did she want to do gigs like this or was she forced to?
Amy is about relationships – with her parents, her two best friends and the various music industry personnel and fans that she meets, some of whom become friends and one of whom becomes her husband. However, these relationships seem to be mainly presented as part of the tragic personal narrative rather than equally representing the personal and the professional development of Amy Winehouse as a singer, composer and performer. We don’t get enough of the changes in Winehouse’s musical tastes and the potential conflicts this might create for her band members or for the record label bosses. Friends more au fait with her music have also suggested that the film gives us only a few of the songs/performances that made her a star – which seems surprising given that the rights were presumably available via Universal. I can only conclude that Kapadia chose to focus on the personal and the celebrity status rather than the early music career as this would attract a wider audience. Personally, the best parts of the film for me included the early footage of a young woman playing guitar and singing in the manner of her jazz heroes, and her recording of a duet with Tony Bennett (it was Bennett who prompted me to take Amy Winehouse seriously when he was interviewed at the time of that recording session).
Amy and the aesthetics of documentary practice
I really do need the DVD for this. What interests me, in comparison with Senna, is the extent to which Kapadia was limited by the found footage available. On Senna he found footage that was in one sense ‘neutral’ (i.e. not focused directly on Ayrton Senna) and which he was able to manipulate and edit in different ways to suggest meanings. Sometimes he discovered footage that offered better images than he might have conceived himself. At other times he found footage that worked purely on a visual level through editing and processing. By contrast, my first impression was that the footage in Amy seems less malleable, partly because much of it is more intimate and closely focused on Amy Winehouse herself. I might be completely wrong (which is why I need a DVD for confirmation) but much of the footage seems to have been shot on phones or video cameras and the best quality footage comes from TV shows. I suppose motor racing is inherently more ‘cinematic’. In Amy, the only footage taken by Kapadia’s cameras seems to comprise a number of aerial shots of London, used partly to show the singer’s homes and partly as ‘punctuation’ between the sequences of found footage. I’m not sure if this worked.
What does this add up to? I’m moving towards arguing that Amy doesn’t work as well as Senna in informing us about the music business or in telling us Amy Winehouse’s story as a music star. On the other hand it may work just as well, if not better, as an affective story about the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s personal life – and that may explain why it will be more successful commercially. The fact that her father has objected to the film (he figures prominently in the footage as one of the potential villains of the narrative but her mother is less visible) may well have added to audience interest. A fiercely critical view of Kapadia’s approach can be found in a Guardian blog post by Ruby Lott-Lavigna:
. . . the film’s exploitative lens: a lens that lingers on intimate images of Winehouse gaunt and high, or on the shocking footage of her body being removed from her Camden home in a body bag. One that leers at her bulimia-wrecked form or even more questionably, uses paparazzi footage in the same breath as explaining how being hounded by the press drove her closer to breaking point. The documentary lacks a voice, supplementing this void with a tabloid-esque scrapbook timeline transposed to screen. Using personal footage and amateurishly inscribing her lyrics across the stage as she sings them, it is reminiscent of a fan-made YouTube video. The documentary seems to lack any moral control, instead stacking one image of a drunken Winehouse on top of another, gradually effacing its own credibility.
This is interesting in its assertion that what is seen by ‘the lens’ – i.e. the found footage that Kapadia has chosen – needs to be ‘explained’ or ‘anchored’ by a (presumably objective) narrator. It also implies that documentaries must embody a moral position instead of offering a narrative that audiences must read and make up their own minds about. I do agree about the lyrics though. Sometimes it was useful but having them for every song did get tedious.
For now I’m biding my time until I can analyse the film in detail before deciding where I stand. In the meantime what were your first impressions?
Here’s the US trailer:
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: