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'Finding Fela': How Alex Gibney Found Nigerian Superstar Fela Kuti

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 1, 2014 at 4:49PM

Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti provides a fascinating subject for frequent music documentarian Alex Gibney in "Finding Fela," which was well-reviewed at Sundance and played in theater via Kino Lorber and hits iTunes and multiple digital platforms on October 31 and Cable Movies on Demand November 1.
Fela Kuti
Fela Kuti
The project was dreamed up by theater producer Stephen Hendel, who became obsessed with the passion of the Nigerian musical powerhouse, who generated 70 albums over decades. Born in 1938, jailed 200 times, and at his peak of popularity in the 70s and 80s, Kuti finally died of AIDS in 1997.

"Finding Fela"
"Finding Fela"

Hendel had the drive and impetus to make the doc happen, having over the years acquired many Fela rights. He commandeered the hit Tony-winning Broadway musical as well, which is a large focus of this movie. So in this case, Gibney was operating more than usual as a director-for-hire, working within the constraints of supporting the entire Fela enterprise at large. 

The film started, Gibney explains, being about "taking the play from New York to Nigeria, and along the way it became a film about finding Fela, it became a deeper journey than the play. My own process of finding Fela, it got deeper and more confusing and finally took shape. Going in I knew about him and liked his music but didn't have a deep appreciation. The film changed shape a lot along the way."

Hendel said at the Sundance Q & A that the film incorporates just 15 minutes of footage of the play, which is 2 hours and 15 minutes long. "The film makes the play shine and shows that Bill T. Jones and all the artists who aren't here dug deep, were authentic," he says. "They told the story of Fela in that play. The film takes it to a different level, it's about the process of understanding who this man was."

Gibney and editor Lindy Jankura faced over 1200 hours of footage that they had to assemble over two years "into a complex narrative weave of different kind of elements," says Gibney. "I'm in awe of what Lindy did on this film."

Gibney's research team excavated material over a long period, on YouTube and elsewhere, including never-before-seen outtakes found in a garage in Paris from French documentary "Music is a Weapon," shot in Nigeria. "Footage and photos kept coming in," says Gibney, "and we kept finding ways to integrate them."

They ended up with "what we deemed the unbearably short 3 1/2 hour version," he admits. They struggled to keep it simple. 

Music is front and center along with the complex Nigerian government politics that Fela navigated as a global superstar. At the Sundance Q & A, Yeni Kuti talked about her father; she was 37 when he died. She used to love watching Fela compose. "He went into a trance, he'd sit down and wouldn't speak, only his mouth moved. He's not with you, he's in composition mode." One of many women in his life, Sandra Izsadore, testified to the film's truth. "It's very emotional for me right now," she told Gibney. "You made me cry a lot, because it's real. It's my life story with Fela."

Still to come from Gibney, who is currently executive producing "Death Row Stories" for CNN, are his James Brown documentary, which was screened as a work-in-progress at Tribeca and should will gain interest as a result of current release "Get On Up," starring Chadwick Boseman, as well as a doc on Frank Sinatra. 

We profile Alex Gibney here. 

See the trailer below.

This article is related to: Finding Fela , Alex Gibney, Alex Gibney, Documentary, Documentaries, Interviews, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.