Alex Gibney opens his documentary on Fela Kuti — the Nigerian musician and activist whose global renown as an African political dissident was said to be second only to Nelson Mandela — by examining the production of Fela!, the 2009 hit Broadway musical about Kuti. It’s a strange choice to make for a documentary that presents itself as an exhaustive examination of a truly complicated figure of history. Why distance yourself from your documentary’s alleged subject by framing it through somebody else’s attempt to depict that same subject? Yet this choice at first presents the rich potential for an intriguing critique on biographical documentaries.
Finding Fela initially indicates that it might use another artistic interpretation of the same subject to highlight two things: the process of selection in turning one’s biography into a story and the consequential role of the author in the way the subject is presented. Fela! choreographer Bill T. Jones is likely not so different from Gibney — they each ostensibly have something they’re actively looking for in the subject they’re examining. The crucial distinction is that I came away from the latter’s production not knowing what that “something” is. Any promise for meta-criticism initially offered by this otherwise befuddling framing device quickly gives way to laziness and an undisciplined approach to structure. I cannot say what about Kuti Gibney is interested in revealing.
Kuti is a fascinating figure, an advocate of incredible passion, a genius artist and a man of vast contradictions. He was a vocal anti-colonial critic, a supporter of African autonomy who often paid deep physical and emotional consequences for his politics of liberation. He was also a megalomaniacal polygamist who had over 25 wives and spent each night corralling them to fight over him. As a musician, Kuti, who began his musical training at Trinity College in London, grew more experimental through his lifetime. A decade after becoming an essential figure in the Afro-beat genre, he began composing single songs that exceeded half an hour, often accompanied by a band of dozens. It’s strange that Gibney does not seem very interested in letting such a fascinating and prolific subject speak for himself, especially considering this is a subject who used words and music to say so much, and in so many ways.
The filmmaker not only isolates Kuti’s music to clips that seem to last less than a minute, but the stage actor portraying Kuti and channeling Kuti’s music in Fela! gets as much if not more screen time than Kuti himself. Finding Fela could have been an intriguing examination of how to make sense of a life by documenting another medium’s attempt to make sense of a life, or it could have been a dedicated biography. The choice to use Fela! as the framework for the film seems to have been made simply because it was just as viable a choice as any. The selection of easy accessibility over insight is par for the course in Gibney’s predictable biographical work, which frequently sits in the shadows of his far more substantive documentaries about American politics and foreign policy, which include Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. This is indeed the same filmmaker who told the life story of Hunter S. Thompson through Johnny Depp and based an entire film around his seeming surprise that Lance Armstrong lied to him.
While there are no doubt some interesting aspects of Kuti’s life on display here (how could there not be?), mostly supplied by his biographers or those who knew him personally, Finding Fela does not appear to be trying very hard to do what its title indicates. Gibney alludes to a mosaic of Fela Kuti’s life and work between the Broadway musical, explanations from Afro-beat experts and testimonies from his friends and family — all with underutilized archival footage. Yet rather than an in-depth investigation of a righteous partisan, a groundbreaking artist and a complicated individual, what the restless Finding Fela ends up with is more of a rudimentary search for Kuti. You’d do better to search for him elsewhere, beginning with Jean Jacques Flori and Stephane Tchalgadjieff’s revealing 1982 documentary Music is the Weapon.