Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney bites off more than he can chew and goes back for seconds with musical doc Finding Fela!, an ambitious look at the life and times of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti that, at 119 minutes, feels both leaden and under-realized as often as it reaches kinetic highs. With Fela’s own epic Afrobeat pieces soundtracking Gibney’s film, Finding Fela! is toe-tappingly upbeat, but ultimately exhausting, thanks to Gibney’s attempt to tell too much of one story in a relatively limited two hours.
Fela’s life story was perhaps better suited to a miniseries – in trying to cover all his changing ideals, politics, religious beliefs and musical styles, Gibney makes it obvious that the man was too complicated and too capricious for one feature-length doc. This was a Christian boy with no interest in politics and a fascination with the West, who turned to African mysticism and fully embraced his cultural background as he shape-shifted into one of Africa’s most famous (and most wanted) political activists.
With so much to convey, Gibney makes a mistake in allowing the development of Broadway’s Fela! musical to act as his film’s framing device. Not only does the choice add very little, but the artificiality of that environment is in opposition with the reality of Gibney’s subject, as well as his ideological quest for truth during his lifetime. This isn’t a review of that musical, but watching Fela!’s creatives admit to the futility of condensing Fela’s unique life and music into a poppy, commercial piece of theatre only highlights how at odds with the rest of Gibney’s documentary it is. And the inclusion of the musical’s production only adds to that sense of over-crowding.
Finding Fela! is at its strongest when the real Fela, a grinning, snake-hipped shaman, takes center stage either as a performer or a charismatic speaker, though it can be difficult to be as enamoured with him as Gibney and his selected interviewees clearly are. Fela newcomers can gaze in awe at how the man undoubtedly owned that stage, but behind the scenes was a human rights activist who treated women like property, and who gleefully used his fame and fortune to attract 27 wives and made them into a personal, nightly rotating harem.
The film offers a more rounded view of the man, but makes it tough to totally buy into Fela as the saint that Gibney’s documentary wants to portray him as. Finding Fela! also needed more of an idea of what Fela was actually rebelling against over in the compound that he declared independent from Nigeria. We have an impression of the tyranny of the Nigerian government of the time, but an impression isn’t enough. When we’re told Nigerian troops attacked Fela’s compound and threw his mother out of a window to her death just because Fela released a new political record, it’s shocking partly because Gibney has given us so little background to the regime.
Where the film excels, though, and where it should’ve perhaps held its focus, is in its approach to the music. The changing style and skill of Fela’s music could’ve taken up a documentary of its own, shifting from his jazz beginning,s to quaint Afrobeat songs about soup, to a more funk-orientated (and politically conscious) period, with Fela backed by an enormous house band, The Afrika ’70. A performance of Fela’s at a concert following his 1984 imprisonment finds him in spellbinding form, his music by then “deeper” and almost trance-like. After this sequence, however, it’s a rush to wrap up his story after yet another twist. The near-60 years covered in Finding Fela! is ultimately a bit of a blur, but musical performances like the one just mentioned will no doubt remain engraved on your soul.