Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney turns his attention to Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti in “Finding Fela” with occasionally rousing, largely formulaic results. In perhaps a side effect of Gibney’s current assembly-line approach (he’s released 12 docs over the past four years), this watchable but rather rote chronicle fails to find a compelling perspective on Kuti’s significant life and legacy. Liberal use of numbers from the innovative Broadway musical “Fela!” boost the energy level but only reinforce what’s lacking here. Token theatrical play seems a likely prelude before the pic finds a more logical home on the smallscreen.
It’s easy to see the appeal of undertaking the project: The dramatic arc of Kuti’s life and his profound ability to effect change through artistic expression make him a fascinating figure ripe for exploration. Combine that with behind-the-scenes access to the mounting of the musical, and there’s ample opportunity to reflect upon the intersection of art and social justice. And yet, while the filmed stage performances are among the pic’s most galvanizing sequences, their inclusion underscores how flat Gibney’s combination of archival footage and talking-head interviews otherwise plays. Aside from the lively recollections of Kuti’s American girlfriend, Sandra Izsadore — who introduced him to the Black Power movement — nothing jumps off the screen with the intensity of what we see from “Fela!” or Kuti’s own performances.
There are a few admiring soundbites from Paul McCartney and the Roots drummer Questlove, but Kuti’s impact on his fellow artists and his artistic process go largely unexplored. Instead the primary focus is political, as Kuti’s interest and influence steadily rose throughout his career before reaching a dramatic high point with a 1977 government-sanctioned attack on his commune. Kuti was arrested and his 82-year-old mother was killed, a tragedy that would shape the rest of his life until his own death two decades later. He never backed down, however, forming his own political party and twice running for president of Nigeria in the 1980s despite military opposition.
Although “Finding Fela” is understandably reverent toward its main subject, Gibney avoids straightforward hagiography by spending time on Kuti’s troubling treatment of women. As Izsadore reveals, she was completely unaware Kuti had a wife and children until well into their romantic relationship. He later married 27 women at once in 1978, and is shown firmly stating “Women must know their place” in an archival interview. All this despite his deep love for his mother, a renowned feminist leader.
Ultimately, it feels as if Gibney’s proficiently crafted picture barely scratches the surface of this complex figure, and maybe that’s inevitable. As “Fela!” director Bill T. Jones notes, Kuti’s message could’ve made him an instantly recognizable global icon on the level of Bob Marley, but Kuti’s music requires a “more sophisticated ear.” The same can be said for telling his story.