Finding Fela (15 cert, 119 min) ***
Documentarist Alex Gibney senses the ignorance and prejudice he’s up against in profiling Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti: it’s why Finding Fela opens with concert footage of its subject instructing one audience that “99% of what you’ve heard about Africa is wrong”. Gibney’s typically detailed treatment of Kuti’s life and music offers ample redress, although the filmmaker’s found a curious way of framing his material, intercutting biography with rehearsals for the 2009 Broadway musical Fela! There’s director Bill T. Jones, finessing book and lyrics. And look, there’s producers Jay-Z and Will Smith walking the red carpet! Hang on: where’s Fela gone?
Gibney could argue the show’s inclusion underlines Kuti’s standing, yet too often he appears distracted by this backstage drama – just as he admitted to falling for the grand narrative of Lance Armstrong’s planned comeback while initiating last year’s The Armstrong Lie. Time and again, Finding Fela returns us to the sight of a Fela impersonator fronting showbiz-slick re-enactments that are inevitably less authentic than even the film’s fuzzier archive clips. Gibney seems scared Kuti’s story needs amplification: that it needs to play to the back rows if it isn’t heading straight to BBC4.
Funny thing is, when Gibney puts the story centre stage, the film truly sings. With editor Lindy Jankura, he finds a pulsing, probing rhythm to match its subject; he’s as comfortable discussing the intricacies of Fela’s extended, ceremonial, notionally uncommercial beats as he is setting out the particulars of the Biafran conflict that spawned them. Individual chapters highlight the racism Kuti faced while touring in the 1960s and 70s and the corruption waiting for him back home, and Gibney knows he has non-fiction gold on his hands in the musician’s hectic domestic life (“I wanted to marry 27 girls because I wanted it to be meaningful”).
Given his yen for unprotected sex (and AIDS-related death in 2007), Kuti might have joined Armstrong, Elliot Spitzer and Enron’s suits in Gibney’s rogues’ gallery of alpha males doomed by hubris, but Finding Fela regards him fondly, as a figure born of complex times: a restless, strutting contradiction whose roles took in performer, teacher and ambassador as well as seducer, shaman and sham. Which makes the frequent returns to Broadway even more questionable: in looking for Fela, why did Gibney settle upon an imposter, when the real deal was more than compelling enough?
Finding Fela is now playing in selected cinemas.