Director Alex Gibney is known for political documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks, and the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side. At first glance, his new film Finding Fela seems like a departure from his usual beat. It isn’t. Fela Kuti, the movie’s subject, is known primarily as the father of Afrobeat, the Nigerian-born music that combines funk, jazz, and the bubbling polyrhythms of highlife into a deeply soulful whole. But as Finding Fela shows with deftness and muted reverence, Kuti’s political activism was as integral to his music as any instrument. To Gibney’s credit, he doesn’t gloss over the less harmonious parts of Kuti’s conflicted, tumultuous life.
Kuti was born in Nigeria in 1938, and he died there of AIDS in 1997. He came from a long line of activists and dissidents, but his passion lies in music. Inspired by Miles Davis and James Brown, he synthesized those Western sounds with his own native music, and in doing turned his band Africa ’70 into an innovative powerhouse—and himself into a superstar in Nigeria and beyond. He also vehemently espoused misogynist views and freely practiced polygamy—famously marrying 27 women in a single ceremony in 1978—and used his music to challenge the oppressive authority of Nigeria’s military regime. Over the years, he was hounded, raided, and brutalized by the police, until his mother was eventually murdered by them. He pushed back in song and wound up serving 18 months in prison. Beaten but emboldened by a worldwide rally in his support, he resumed his work with his second band, Egypt ’80, and continued to evolve as a singer, multi-instrumentalist, and composer. His death came as a blow to a continent suffering a dire AIDS epidemic—and also a continent that had embraced Kuti, faults and all, as an icon.
Gibney lays out the events of Kuti’s life with economy and empathy. His structure is simple and sound, a mix of concert footage, archival clips, and talking heads (including Questlove of The Roots and an egregiously underused Paul McCartney, who pops up for all of 20 seconds to say he saw Kuti play once, and that he was “very intense”). The concert footage alone is stunning, showcasing Kuti both at his peak in the ’70s—all sensuality, stridency, and showmanship—and during his more thoughtful, ambitious, post-prison era. And the anecdotes about his illness and death are powerful, particularly when a friend remembers how Kuti, who had come to reject Western medicine, assured her that his AIDS-related lesions were simply the shedding of his skin, the first step of some new life that would never actually come.
Less successful, and at times distracting, is the way Gibney frames and ties his narrative together. Fela! is a Tony-winning Broadway musical based on Kuti’s life and music that debuted in 2009; its director, Bill T. Jones, is interviewed extensively, and focuses a little too much on Fela!’s journey to the stage. Copious, bordering-on-gratuitous clips of Fela! performances are spliced into the mix, occasionally making Kuti’s life seem like the backstory. But those clips are also excellent—even if they do make Finding Fela seem like a documentary about a musical about Kuti as much as a documentary about Kuti himself. That doesn’t appreciably diminish the film, but it does blunt some of the impact that Gibney’s more activist work usually wields. Like 2012’s similarly titled and themed Searching For Sugar Man, Finding Fela! seeks to shed light on an artist whose contributions have not gotten their due. What makes Finding Fela! just as poignant is the fact that Kuti, while still listened to and appreciated by millions, is not as ubiquitous a cultural institution as Davis or Brown. Gibney doesn’t fully, forcefully make the case in Kuti’s favor—but he does take a big step in the right direction, all while sketching a vivid, evocative portrait.