The legendary musician, producer, innovator and thinker Brian Eno once famously called the Nigerian Afrobeat meter one of the three greatest drumbeats of the 1970s (along with Germany’s propulsive Motorik pulse and James Brown's Stubblefield-driven funky drummer groove). And Eno's early declarations have hardly proved wrong over the decades, often turning into reliable maxims. While genius drummer Tony Allen would physically provide the rhythm, the Afrobeat sound was conceived and pioneered by Fela Anikulapo Ransome Kuti, the multi-instrumentalist godfather of this remarkable polyrhythmic African jazzfunk genre. Kuti was to Afrobeat what Bob Marley was to reggae, what Brown was to funk; a musical giant in the scene with few rightful claimers to the throne. But unlike his contemporaries who are all recognized legends worldwide, Kuti still remains largely a musical cult figure to this day.
Directed by ubiquitous Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (“Taxi To the Dark Side,” “We Steal Secrets,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), "Finding Fela!" acts as a decent primer for those unfamiliar with the visionary musician, but never draws a portrait deeper than what you might read in an AMG bio. While there’s a cogent argument to be made that there isn’t enough space in a feature doc to properly encapsulate the expansive Fela, Gibney’s choices and short attention span don’t really help.
Part of the fundamental flaw in its fabric is that Gibney opens his doc sideways and sees his subject through the lens of the 2009 Off-Broadway musical biography "Fela!" Directed, co-written and choreographed by 1994 MacArthur “Genius” Award winner Bill T. Jones, the artistic director’s take on Fela — a mercurial, complex man marked by bouts of contradiction and self-reinvention — isn’t off beam. In fact, this account illustrates how difficult it is to capture a proper portrait of the complicated individual and his sprawling, non-bite-sized twenty-minute “songs,” which are more like engorged musical movements that swell and crescendo. While an unconventional approach to the material, it often it feels as if the documentary is confused as to whether it’s a chronicle of the musical or the musical legend. And in truth, that’s because Gibney’s movie did begin as a document of Jones' musical (and its eventual pilgrimage to Nigeria) — and it shows.
Midway through the process, Gibney re-envisioned the project to be about Fela Kuti himself, leveraging the stage show and its creators as a gateway guide for the audience towards their mutual subject. But occasionally this method feels a bit more like tourism. The exclamation mark in the film’s title is both homage and unintended tip-off; Gibney is obligated to his original idea and then wrestles with how to transition over to the new one (which is much more interesting anyhow).
“Fela!” finds its groove when it sticks to its genuine article and is not looking at the artist through the prism of an interpreted echo. Here you get the familiar but informative biographical beats you’re looking for: a young man that studies musical theory and classical music, and discovers an affinity for jazz. He takes that love for the genre and fuses it with a Nigerian funk sound known as Highlife, and the bandleader and musical pioneer would synthesize it all to create the Afrobeat sound.
Kuti would become a towering figure in Africa in the 1970s, but his expanding consciousness would soon turn the musician into a white hot political firebrand and therefore an easy-to-spot dissenting target. Fela’s fierce outspokenness in songs, imagery and interviews (“music is a weapon!” became a motto) eventually made him an enemy of the state and he was severely beaten, jailed and disturbed by the Nigerian army on several occasions (they even caused the death of his mother when they raided his compound).
Featuring interviews with Fela's sons and other musicians—Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, Tony Allen, Questlove from The Roots and even Paul McCartney (who shares an incredible anecdote of The Beatles witnessing Fela’s ultra-tight Nigeria '70 band tear up the legendary Shrine venue in Lagos and being moved to tears)—these segments are standard-issue talking heads, but at least deliver a competent context.
Gibney's doc covers all these greatest hits of his biography, but refreshingly does not shy away from Fela’s more notorious and perhaps regrettable personal aspects – his misogynistic views, his polygamy (he had over a dozen wives), the hubris (he built his own compound and declared it its own republic within Nigerian borders, subject to its own law), drug use (brazen), misplaced faith in dubious spiritual charlatans and his death from AIDS-related causes in 1987.
Having recently completed (and or worked on) documentaries about Frank Sinatra, James Brown, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, WikiLeaks and Catholic church scandals and the Eliot Spitzer political drama of 2009, there's a anonymous cottage industry aspect to Gibney's work in recent years. A half-dozen documentaries appear to always be in the works (one has to wonder exactly how much Gibney is actively directing all of them) and perhaps this is why ‘Fela!’ suffers. The movie is politely capable, but never quite engrossing.
Fela was and is a captivating, complex figure still to this day, but it intermittently seems as if Gibney is simply going down a checklist of highlights rather than engaging more deeply with his subject. Structurally sound, if conventional, for music lovers 'Fela' provides compelling moments, but the doc rarely offers insightful ones. Still, the powerful presence of Kuti and his vital music is absorbing and enduring, so he makes a worthwhile subject even in the most traditional frame. And perhaps Gibney's biggest asset is his transparency – Fela isn’t an easy subject to summarize, and grappling with his characterization is thematically sound to the fluid and ever-evolving man he was both personally and musically. Gibney never quite finds Fela, and the quest isn’t always remarkable either, but such is the spirited brio of the seminal subject that some of his dynamic essence still shines through. [B]