“Finding Fela,” directed by Alex Gibney, is a conventionally made documentary about an unconventional superstar – Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer and social-justice shaker Fela Kuti. Gibney’s talking heads and archival footage result in a satisfyingly informative but dramatically flat portrait of a man who electrified fans and incensed authorities.
Qualifying more as a rise-and-downfall story in the vein of the prolific Gibney’s investigative projects (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks”) than as a celebratory work such as the 2009 Broadway hit “Fela!,” which it frequently references, “Finding Fela” chronicles the career of the 1938-born artist called simply Fela.
Raised in an upper-middle-class home in Nigeria and musically schooled in London, Fela, in the 1960s and 1970s, created and popularized the Afrobeat sound – a cocktail of jazz, highlife, funk and traditional West African rhythms. In 1969, Fela visited the United States, where the black-power movement impressed him and helped shape his pro-Africa, anti-oppression message.
In a country wracked by civil war and poverty, Fela performed songs that blasted government abuses. Angered by his “Zombie” album, Nigeria’s military attacked his Lagos compound. Fela’s mother died in the incident.
Refusing to ignore the flaws, Gibney presents Fela not only as a musical genius who captivated audiences with songs that exceeded 20 minutes, but as an indulgent celebrity who strutted the stage with a giant spliff in his hand and alienated members of his famed Africa ’70 band. Fela married 27 women in a 1978 ceremony. He continued to deny that his skin lesions were from Kaposi’s sarcoma; he died, in 1997, from AIDS-related conditions.
As a 101 course in all things Fela, the film suffices.
The musical passages capture the bigness of the Fela experience and the nature of Afrobeat’s “endless grooves.”
The interviewees provide a multifaceted picture. Longtime manager Rikki Stein supplies edifying anecdotes. Former Black Panther Sandra Izsadore recalls Fela’s troubling views of women. Most prominently, “Fela!” choreographer-director Bill T. Jones tries to access Fela’s “madness.”
Unfortunately, however, the film doesn’t bring to compelling life the force of passion and personality that was Fela Kuti. As a profile of a music giant who fused art with social purpose, it lacks the impact of 2012’s “Marley” or 2007’s “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.” As with Gibney’s Hunter S. Thompson documentary, “Gonzo,” its ambitious but standard blend of interviews and footage can’t do justice to its subject’s maverick spirit.
The large portion of time devoted to the Broadway Fela fractures the film’s focus and detracts from the depiction of the real Fela. Although Gibney nicely acquaints viewers with an artist worthy of note, Fela deserves a more exciting movie.
Starring Fela Kuti, Bill T. Jones, Rikki Stein, Sandra Izsadore
Directed by Alex Gibney