Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, based on the life of Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, opens with a rather apt observation. Bill T. Jones, director of the fantastic 2009 musical show “Fela!,” points out that the musician is as important a political and cultural icon as Bob Marley, but never quite connected with the West because his music was less palpable, less easy to digest. His songs, blending highlife, jazz, soul, and funk, were often epic, twenty-minute labyrinths of sound, layering guitar on sax, on percussion, beneath Fela’s chant-like Yoruba and pidgin English lyrics.
In “Finding Fela,” Gibney makes an attempt to help us better understand Fela’s genius, as well as his madness.
Using behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage of the Broadway show, talking head interviews featuring ?uestlove, Paul McCartney, Tony Allen, and Fela’s highly amusing and honest son, Femi Kuti, Gibney presents a straightforward and relatively comprehensive biography. Almost everything about Fela is covered: his background as the member of a high society and political Nigerian family, the intoxicating quality of his live shows with Africa 70, his experimentation with marijuana and spiritualism, his twenty-seven wives, the politicization of his music and outspoken criticism of the Nigerian government, and the profound effect that his mother’s death (after being thrown from a second-story window during a raid) had on him in his later life.
The mix of the behind-the-scenes creative process of Bill T. Jones and his team, working on the musical, and archival footage of Fela on his Kalakuta Compound, or at his legendary club, the Shrine (mostly taken from the 1982 doc “Music is the Weapon”) isn’t exactly faultless. The back-and-forth is a slightly disconcerting storytelling mode in this context, when both stories - that of Fela’s rise to fame, and the making of the 2009 musical - are equally compelling.
Gibney’s narrative never really fully settles, so while the breakdown of Fela’s life may be thorough in scope, we’re still left wanting more insight. One wonders if the documentary would have been improved by focusing in more closely on one story - Bill T. Jones’s unbridled fascination with Kuti, and his own personal genius, are captivating enough for a separate doc altogether.
And despite obvious efforts to give an unbiased portrait of the artist, the documentary does often lean far too heavily on highlighting what made Fela exhilarating - his bravery, his talent, his position as one of the first true countercultural figures in West Africa at the time. Fela’s qualities as a composer, as a community leader, as an activist should rightly be admired, but the film shies away from complicating the “mad genius” persona by glossing over the problematic aspects of his personality, chief among them his misogyny.
Jones is the lonely voice in the film that, at least, engages with the dark sides of Fela, criticizing the singer for willfully having unprotected sex while HIV-positive (he died in 1997 at 58), and admitting that he may not have been wholly likable, but he was still very necessary.
We never really “find” Fela in this film, which of course is not the point. So prolific and contradictory a figure as he was, no 2-hour foray into his life and music could ever fully do him justice.
What the documentary does do, at the very least, is provide an entertaining primer for the Fela novice, and inspire those familiar with his work and his legend to seek out more.
Kino Lorber kicks off "Finding Fela's" theatrical run this Friday, August 1, with an exclusive Manhattan engagement at IFC Center; it's also scheduled to open in DC on August 8 (at Landmark’s E Street Cinema), as well as in Boston (at Landmark’s Kendall Square) and Atlanta (Landmark’s Midtown) on August 15.