“Finding Fela,” prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest work, faces the challenge of depicting a contradictory artist. But that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. On the contrary, the film — about the life, times and music of Afrobeat superstar and Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti — is exceptionally watchable. Kuti’s wild life never loses its surprise ingredients: from the time he married 27 girls in one ceremony to his involvement with a “spiritual guru” who slit throats for party demonstrations. The film’s challenge lays in its difficult hero, an enormously talented and charismatic man who was also troubled, stubborn, unpredictable, and probably not entirely sane.
“Finding Fela” provides a comprehensive look at Kuti’s life. The numerous interview subjects include his bandmates, children, friends, scholars and famous fans, all of whom have fascinating stories and insight to share, and the carefully chosen footage of Kuti himself — onstage or off, always wielding a more enormous joint and wearing a more lurid jumpsuit — makes obvious what a magnetic presence he had, and how he was able to attract such a following.
The documentary doesn’t merely examine the musician himself, however, but also the cast and crew of the 2009 Broadway musical “Fela!,” which was based on the events of Kuti’s life, in both development and performance. This inclusion adds an interesting new angle to the more straightforward documentary approach that characterizes the rest of “Finding Fela,” partly because it supplements the film’s narrative with stage-musical interpretations of many episodes in Kuti’s life, but also in large part because the makers of the musical, in figuring out how to portray this historical figure, struggle with the same questions about Kuti as the viewers of the documentary. As stage director Bill T. Jones says about getting to the heart of his enigmatic protagonist, “The mystery is the madness. What is compelling to me is the madness in him.”
On that note, Kuti was, like so many other geniuses before him, a little bit crazy: Stories of his exploits include polygamy and a stint as an exhibitionist spiritual guru. Famous for using “music as a weapon,” Kuti’s revolutionary politics as expressed through his music can be clear and meaningful. At the same time, the documentary states that he “didn’t have a clear political ideology worked out…he was instinctive.”
However problematic his politics, religion or personal life were, Kuti’s musical talents were undeniable, and provide the heartbeat of “Finding Fela,” leaving you wishing for more (the 120 minute running time was reportedly cut down from over three hours).
The documentary’s title suggests that Fela has somehow been lost to new generations of music fans. The film succeeds at rediscovering his appeal anew, contextualizing his world and his politics, but the man’s true identity remains something of a mystery. The closest the movie comes to grappling with Fela’s mystique comes from footage of his stage presence — dancing, smoking, playing the saxophone, decrying the establishment — but even in those moments, he remains a mad, brilliant enigma. Maybe that’s part of his magic: even after a superbly made two-hour-long documentary, Kuti keeps many of his secrets to himself.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Considering its warm Sundance reception and the recent successes of music documentaries on VOD, “Finding Fela” is likely find success along similar lines. A limited theatrical release is guaranteed, though it’s not poised to generate much widespread acclaim outside of Kuti’s fan base.