Even though the life of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti has been transformed into the Tony-winning Broadway musical Fela!—co-written, directed, and choreographed by certified MacArthur Genius and Kennedy Center honoree Bill T. Jones—there’s never been a good way to replicate the actual Kuti. Even the scenes of Kuti onstage in Alex Gibney’s documentary Finding Fela offer just a fragment of a fragment of the Fela Kuti experience. Kuti was so commanding in concert, stalking shirtlessly back and forth across the stage with a cigarette (or a joint) in his hand, while brightly clad dancers cavorted around him. But as The Roots’ Questlove says in Finding Fela, it’s hard to make a musical out of Kuti’s life, because his best songs typically ran upward of 20 or even 40 minutes. Kuti’s music builds, until a single track becomes an all-consuming environment. His art isn’t easily excerpted.
Initially, Gibney seems to have found a way around this problem in Finding Fela. His film starts with Jones in rehearsals for Fela!, talking about his own challenges in streamlining Kuti’s biography; for about the first 10 minutes, it looks like Finding Fela is going to be a documentary about Fela!, telling Kuti’s story through the frame of someone else trying to tell Kuti’s story. But that’s a little too ambitious for Gibney, a documentarian who generally does good work, but rarely exceptional work. Since directing the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side in 2007, Gibney has made 12 feature documentaries—seven of those since 2010—and has produced roughly half a dozen others. He’s prolific to a fault.
In Finding Fela’s case, Gibney quickly abandons Fela! as an organizing principle—though he does return to the musical periodically—and instead settles into a mostly chronological interviews-and-archival-footage approach to Kuti’s biography. The problem is that there’s too much ground to cover with Kuti: his childhood in Nigeria in a prominent family of activists; the way his 1960s residencies in London and Los Angeles shaped both his music and his message; the libertine commune he founded; his conflicts with the authorities over his heavily politicized music and concerts; how demanding and hurtful he could be in his personal life; and the popularity and influence of his music across Africa and the world. Gibney touches on it all, without much narrative structure or theme to keep Finding Fela from becoming anything more than a series of illustrated bullet points.
To his credit, Gibney doesn’t shy away from Kuti’s darker side—in particular, his habit of turning even the women he loved and respected into part of his harem, insisting that they “know their place.” But here again, the parts of Finding Fela that best handle the tricky nuances of Kuti’s worldview are the parts that show Jones and the Fela! creative team grappling with those same questions. Jones talks about his desire to create a memorable theatrical experience, and to give the audience “at least the two-dimensional version of ‘Fela the fighter.’” But he also wants to make sure theatergoers understand why Kuti was so controversial, and that he wasn’t some blandly uplifting cultural figure. One of the strongest scenes in Finding Fela has Jones struggling to choreograph a sequence involving Kuti and his women, and sighing, “I wish we could transcend this.”
Beyond the Fela! material, Finding Fela succeeds when it sticks to Kuti’s music. Gibney has an assortment of collaborators, fans, and critics who speak to how Kuti’s arrangements evolved throughout the 1970s and 1980s, moving from expansive James Brown-like funk to something more mystical and trancelike, with the songs getting longer and longer. Finding Fela features some remarkable footage of Kuti in concert across eras, from the years when he treated his Nigerian nightclub The Afrika Shrine as part church and part town-hall meeting, to later in life, when he performed before huge international audiences, and tried to be an evangelist for African culture. And yet even in these scenes of Kuti in his prime, Finding Fela can only give so much time to any one song or speech. Just when Kuti is getting on a roll, Gibney is ready to move on to something else.