McQueen to direct film on African musician

Focus Features has set Steve McQueen to direct “Fela,” a feature film based on the life of African musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti — the subject of the recently opened Broadway musical “Fela!”

McQueen, the British artist who made his feature directing debut last year on the Irish hunger strike drama “Hunger,” will write the script with Biyi Bandele, based on the Michael Veal book “Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon.” Cine Mosaic’s Lydia Pilcher and Leigh Blake are producing. The musical has spurred a resurgence of interest in Fela, who died in 1997, and his Afrobeat musical style, which is a fusion of American jazz, funk and West African drums.

The musical is not connected to the film project: Focus is basing its pic on a rights package consisting of screen rights to Fela’s music and his life story, plus Veal’s book.

Fela lived large — with some 27 wives — and paid a high price for speaking out against oppression in Nigeria. In one attack on his home, Fela’s 78-year-old mother was killed after being thrown from a second-story window. Fela responded by placing her coffin on the steps of the Nigerian leader’s residence.

“Fela might be the most globally influential pop artist outside the Beatles in the last 50 years,” said Focus topper James Schamus. “The Broadway show is pure joy, but Steve and Biyi’s vision is very cinematic and distinctive. Fela was a revolutionary figure in world culture, and Steve is an artist who had a strong vision of politics and the world even before he made his first film. They are kindred spirits.”

Schamus said the movie deal was not a reaction to the musical’s opening. Pilcher spent five years tying down the rights for Focus.

Schamus, who made the “Fela” deal last week just as the Comcast pact to take over NBC Universal was being finalized, said Focus plans to stay the course in making ambitious and artsy pics on a cost-conscious basis. He cited the company’s track record with its recent releases as examples of how it manages the margins.

“We all feel pressure to hit homers, but ‘A Serious Man,’ a film that has no definable genre or business plan, is the solid double we hoped it would be, and ‘Coraline’ got more Annie nominations than ‘Up,’ ” Schamus said. “Of course, I got my ass kicked on ‘Woodstock.’ That is going to happen, but you’ve got to keep making movies you believe in, at reasonable costs.”

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