Fragmented Frequencies March 2015

Finding Fela: Music is the Weapon (Madman) is a 2014 documentary by Alex Gibney (Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson). You’d think that an extensive telling of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, the legendary pioneer of Afrobeat, an incredible fusion between funk and traditional African music, is long overdue. After all between his radicalisation via the black panthers, beatings from the military, marriage to his 21 backup singers, time in jail for illegally taking currency overseas, declaration of his compound as a separate state and incendiary concerts, there’s a wealth of material.

The problem is that Gibney bases his film around the making of Fela the musical, a 2011 Broadway production, which is pretty much Fela karaoke despite the presence of New York’s Antibalas as the house band. There’s so much footage of their backstage angst about how to capture his spirit, that you can only assume that the financing came directly from this production and they were obligated to use a percentage of footage. Gibney uses this as a spine to explore the developments of Fela’s life, integrating archival material, and interviews with former managers, band members including Tony Allen, and Fela’s children – which is all quite fascinating. It’s those first person accounts, such as both managers saying that their lasting memory of Fela is watching him comb his hair, that bring the man to life. His children’s accounts are also telling. If you can stomach the stage show it’s a fascinating account of one of the truly iconic and inspiring musicians of our time.

Fragmented Films 6th of May 2009

When you no longer exist and become trapped within your own misguided bloated and mythical image it can become a torturous chicken and egg scenario. The irony being you have no one else to blame but yourself. This was the quintessential problem for Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, who not only inserted himself into his stories, but made himself increasingly the focal point, more often than not to the detriment of the story itself, yet in doing so, somehow stumbled into a wider social milieu, into the darkness and hypocrisy at the heart of the American dream. Gonzo (Arthouse/ Madman) is an exhaustive document of the life, writing, celebrity and eccentricity of Thompson that is willing to delve beneath the mescaline, bourbon, and drug addled paranoia and explore the complexity of the man via archival footage, interviews with friends, family and even politicians on the receiving end of Thompson’s wit. And strangely enough it doesn’t forget the writing, with Johnny Depp reading excerpts over iconic 60’s music and imagery. Director Alex Gibney who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Darkside, tracks some of the most obscure footage of Hunter you could ever imagine, and he is exhaustive in his research, not pulling any punches when the ego and addictions seemed to sap his creative energy and his writing became a sad parody of his former genius. The directors commentary is like a whole new film with Gibney offering up numerous nuggets he uncovered during his research. Gonzo is the kind of film Hunter in all his complex contradictory madness deserves, simultaneously hilarious and tragic.

The Harder They Come (Umbrella) is so cool that it hurts, with great reggae music and copious amounts of ganja. Released in 1972 it’s the film that brought not only the sound of Jamaican reggae to the world, but also its fashion sense and lifestyle. Curiously it’s also a gangster film, a musical and a social commentary. It’s rough and raw, imbued not just with an urban street energy, but these incredible tunes from star Jimmy Cliff who sings the catchy title song and plays the rebellious lead role, yet also from Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Decker. This film is a real time capsule, owing a little to US blacksploitation combined with a cultural snapshot, playing as a anti social gangster film. There’s also some great extras including a 52 minute making off and interviews with all relevant parties.

Fix (Accent) is what happens when the MTV culture smokes ice and gets ADHD. Forget about bothering with numerous setups and angles, just give one of the actors the camera and set him lose. It’s subjective first person narrative, something Fragmented Films hasn’t seen since the 1947 detective noir The Lady In The Lake. In our cinema verite obsessed word, in our quest for immediacy and being right in the thick of the action (albeit deep in the confines of our comfortable armchair) Fix makes perfect sense. It runs with a couple of 20 somethings racing to get their charismatic and eccentric heroin addicted brother to rehab by 8pm or he will face 3 years jail. It’s high energy stuff with abrupt jump cuts and numerous seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s the huge boulder that unfortunately doesn’t crush Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, picking up speed threatening to wipe out everything else in its path. Yet when they occasionally slow down there’s an unexpected depth, humor and social commentary lurking beneath the provocative style, and that’s ultimately what makes Fix such a taut and compelling experience.

There is nothing like Film Noir. It’s a morose and seedy post WW2 cynicism about human nature that expressed itself via dark expressionistic lighting, grim storylines and duplicitous archetypal characters. It exists in a time (the 1940’s and 50’s) when happy endings seemed inconceivable even to Hollywood. Otto Preminger is the autocratic (read violent bully) German director who created some of the most influential noir’s of the time and Madman have released three of these, Whirlpool, Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends. We’re talking dirty cops, fraudulent hypnotists, seedy con-men, with the dice well and truly loaded against our anti heroes. In the Fallen Angel commentary academic Adrian Martin suggests there’s only one rule with Preminger, ‘follow the camera.” A master of long takes, he would move in and withdraw, obtaining a long shot and close up all within the one shot without cutting. It’s like being entertained whilst going to film school. He was a true maverick, actively attempting to subvert the puritan censors at every opportunity and crafting these incisive dark vignettes that could never be made today.