I was wondering where to start my blurb about Tunde Kelani’s film. I’m not a writer nor an academic. Just a simple village boy with an unending thirst for art, music and culture. I kinda don’t wanna write a weighty tome but I suspect that this might turn into one.
The subject of the biopic’s legacy and music is way too big to be captured adequately on film. A serious and exhaustive documentary would probably be the way to do justice to his story. In order to get a grip on the movie, one has to be well versed in Nigerian history.
Yoruba history and culture specifically in this case. Yoruba culture is deeply rooted in myths, legends and stories handed down over many generations. Those myths have given rise to a culture across Yorubaland of ancestral worship, respect for the elders and deep mysticism. Yoruba music is a product of those influences. The myriad of Yoruba musical genres have a common grounding in Dundun and Sekere, the DNA of popular Yoruba music. Apala music is a synthesis of traditional music, Dundun and Sekere , heavy percussion and a bit of Islamic influence.
Haruna Ishola was the most influential Apala musician. Not sure that any arguments can be made otherwise. He took what was a relatively regional genre of music and popularized across Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. He also traveled throughout Europe entertaining Nigerians abroad. In essence, his name is synonymous with the genre. Ayinla Omowura on the other hand was the “rock star” of the genre. A brash, seriously gifted wordsmith with deep knowledge of Yoruba history and culture. He had charisma by the ton. popular across all strata of Yoruba social and economic strata. Apala music was considered “uncivilized” by many Yoruba elites but even those folks were listening to his music on the down low.
He was especially popular with the working class. Bus drivers, butchers, beer parlor owners and patrons and every associated thug and borderline derelict. I cannot write enough superlatives to put in context his command of language, superstar status, cultural and societal relevance. He was a genius with a band of prodigies as his backing band. He was to Apala music what Johnny Cash was to country music. An unabashed rebel who drank, smoked weed, womanized and would throw fists if need be. A larger than life swaggering saint-sinner with a broken halo. Tunde Kelani had quite the job on his hands of trying to harness everything about the man into a biopic. Kinda like trying to tame a hurricane.
Tunde Kelani is an artist. An incredibly sensuous filmmaker. I’ve become well acquainted with his style over the years. From his early work as a cinematographer on the brilliant but ill-fated ‘Orun Mooru’, his direction on 1999’s ‘Saworo Ide’, to his 2010 brilliant ‘Arugba’. His videos for the amazing Beninoise Bolojo musician Zeynab Habib are masterful. Lush and sensuous, showing the deft hands of a skilled and confident film maker. It’s not Nollywood. He’s always tried to elevate his movies beyond the banal. A fair amount Nollywood movies sadly thrive on the banal and mind numbing.
So, on to the movie. If you’re a Nigerian of a certain age, you’re already well versed with the story. You know how it ends. The movie is gorgeous technically. The production design is pretty top notch. The cinematography is beautiful. The colors jump right off the screen. The design and production team of Bola Bello, Kolawole Adeniji, Lukman Abdulrahman and Ade Bakare did a pretty spectacular job. The red earth and tin roofs of Abeokuta glisten. Olumo Rock makes a great character in the background of the movie. Looming, yet never dominating the scenery. Deftly woven into the narrative. A fantastic piece of using location as character. The Brazilian style architecture of some of the old houses are worn, giving a peek at the shabby elegance of what they once were.
Nigerians love their movies and actors big and dramatic. Over the top overacting appears to be the essence of Nigerian acting conservatories. Why that is, I do not know but it’s kinda always been that way. Maybe a carryover of the segue of stage craft into movies and television. Lateef Adedimeji is stunning in the title role. He brings serious gravitas as well as charming handsomeness to his character. He even looks quite a bit like Ayinla Omowura. Right down to his ruggedness. I have never heard an interview nor seen any video clips of Omowura. I’ve been researching for years and have never come across any. Pity, because it would have been great to hear his Egba accent and see if Adedimeji did it any justice. Adedimeji was born in Lagos to Egba parents, so I’m assuming that nailing the Egba accent wasn’t too difficult. He tried hard in the role, does a pretty good job. The scenes where he shines the most are the ones of him on stage. He brings a genuine feel to those scenes .
You can actually imagine him as a musician in spite of the obvious out of phase lip-synching and a not so great job of playing Ayinla’s records in the scenes. It could have worked had the audio production been fleshed out more and integrated into the production. Instead, it feels very much tacked on in the studio after the filming was done.
A few of the actors in other roles were mostly fine. I didn’t really feel that any of them grabbed their roles and made them completely come to life. Adebowale Adedayo is not an actor that I’m familiar with. He’s apparently a well named comic and actor who goes by Mr. Macaroni. He wasn’t half bad as Bayowa. Omowunmi Dada is gorgeous. Beautiful rich chocolate . Her role as the good time girl Deborah was a nice addition. Did i mention that she’s gorgeous? The continuity was a bit off for me.
The story could maybe have benefited from a bit of exploration of Ayinla’s background , and what led him to music. The arc of the story felt kinda thin and rushed in some parts. Again, since most of us are pretty well versed with the story, maybe the director felt that bit was unnecessary. The scenes in the beer parlor had me longing for Nigeria. I wanted to be in those beer parlors with all the sinners, saints and miscreants. Some of the best scenes were those. They felt very authentic. The Egungun scenes hit me right in the feels. Beautiful and colorful. Those scenes showcased the incredible beauty of Yoruba culture in lively authentic ways. I was deeply moved by those scenes. There were a couple of funny scenes. The ladies dishing, gossiping and dealing out major shade at the beer parlor was awesome. I liked that they were able to subtly work in one of Ayinla’s songs about women bleaching their skin into the movie. Sikira getting dragged for skin bleaching was fire. Also the scene where Ade Laoye as the journalist Jaiye tries to find Ayinla was funny. When she mentions that she was a journalist, “Oniroyin”, the comeback quip about “Oni ro yin” ( liars) had me laughing.
So, to close this tome.
Tunde Kelani is a fantasic artist and director. The movie could have given us more . Given the undertaking though, I’ll have to say that I was pretty happy with it. Ayinla’s life and story were legendary and the movie doesn’t quite give us that scope. I’m not sure that any movie could have. As we say in the old country, “It’s impossicant”.
Kelani has not given us a biopic in the true sense. What we have is a mostly well crafted movie that suggests the essence of Omowura. I hope that the movie introduces the “yoots” to a part of Yoruba culture, history and music that’s worth preserving at all costs. Omowura sang that “boli ati epa l’orin wa”, we got some boli with a handful of epa. A satisfying snack but I wish that we’d gotten a feast.