Finding Fela: Sundance Review

Fela Kuti
An absorbing if not quite definitive patchwork of the life and legacy of an unorthodox artist.

Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) grapples with an enigmatic persona in his politically charged doc about Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.

The epic trance-like performance riffs of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti could run on for a half-hour or more, teasing with infectious rhythms that might tantalize and then disappear all too swiftly, while other repetitive grooves dug in for the long haul. Alex Gibney’s aptly titled documentary on the Nigerian musician and postcolonial political activist, Finding Fela, is in some ways a similar experience -- always interesting, frequently explosive, but also sprawling and unfocused. The subject is perhaps too rife with complexities and contradictions to be entirely pinned down.

The film serves as a companion piece to the 2009 Broadway musical Fela!, and was originally planned to document performances of the production in Nigeria. Directed and co-conceived by innovative choreographer Bill T. Jones, the show and its creative process are extensively covered here, with dynamic excerpts illustrating that the visceral dance-centric portrait was more immersive than informational. But that approach doesn’t mix seamlessly with Gibney’s more conventional assembly of talking heads and archive material -- most of it from the 1970s and '80s.

In coverage of Gibney’s work these days, his name is almost invariably preceded by the word "prolific." He is certainly a machine, cranking out hefty, ambitious projects at an astonishing rate. In the past year and a half alone, he has premiered feature-length documentaries on sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa), Julian Assange and WikiLeaks (We Steal Secrets) and 'roid racer Lance Armstrong (The Armstrong Lie). His films are always dense with research but often somewhat lacking in economy or shape, as if Gibney has no time to chisel the story down to its hard-hitting essence because he’s already onto the next project. That seems the case with Finding Fela.

The film attempts to balance a reportorial account of Kuti’s political and musical legacy with a more personal view of an extravagantly erratic personality, often seen toking on a cigar-sized spliff. To borrow Jones’ words, it tries to “access the madness.”

Kuti’s big-band music was a multilayered fusion of jazz, funk, soul, West African drums, highlife horns and Yoruban chants. But aside from a brief sound bite from Paul McCartney, who recalls seeing a performance at Kuti’s Lagos club, the Shrine, there’s surprisingly little music-industry representation here. The reflection on Kuti’s inspirations and on the subsequent artists influenced by him is almost cursory. The most substantial contribution in that area comes from Questlove, while Jay Z, who was a producer on the Broadway show, is merely glimpsed arriving on opening night.

The doc posits that Kuti was as significant a cultural figure as Bob Marley, only with far less exposure in the West. It would have been useful to have some insightful commentary from other musicians to back up that assertion and contextualize the artist on the world-music map. (Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, for instance, has spoken in interviews about the cocooning effect of Kuti’s music.)

The key motif here is “music as a weapon.” Gibney appears primarily interested in how Kuti used his songs as a confrontational platform for social justice, causing him to become a target for police harassment, arrests and violence. His most widely known album, Zombie, was a direct attack on the oppressive rule of the corrupt Nigerian government, resulting in a brutal military raid on the Lagos compound that Kuti had declared an independent republic.

Family members and friends outline how Kuti, unlike his doctor brothers, was an academic under-achiever whose political ideology was instinctive rather than organized. Much of his initial fire was fueled by a relationship with Sandra Izsadore, an African-American former Black Power radical who gives one of the more illuminating on-camera interviews here.

Izsadore comments on Kuti’s regressive attitudes toward women, spreading his attention among 27 wives and countless lovers in his commune. This remains a sad irony for the son of an outspoken feminist advocate. The film suggests that his mother’s death, after being thrown from a second-story window during a raid, robbed Kuti of a coherent political model and steered him toward arcane spiritual beliefs. His detachment from reality peaked when he contracted the HIV virus, refusing to acknowledge either the illness or the benefits of Western medicine. He died in 1997.

Perhaps the chief disappointment here is that unlike Fela! on stage, the film has little emotional kick, even when Kuti’s son speaks at a packed stadium memorial service. The impression is not that something is missing from Gibney’s comprehensive treatment, but that this is a life not particularly suited to a straightforward chronicle. The abstract, experiential nature of the Broadway musical gave it a dangerous vitality that seems essential in understanding Kuti. That quality is largely missing from Finding Fela.

An unconventional biopic on Kuti has long been in development, with Steve McQueen initially reported to be directing his 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role. They dropped out, however, and the production was announced last fall at Focus Features, with Nigerian-born Andrew Dosunmu (Mother of George) attached to direct a script co-written by James Schamus. The structural overhaul at Focus means the film is no longer in the pipeline there, but producer Lydia Dean Pilcher is looking to set up the project elsewhere.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

Production company: Jigsaw Productions, in association with Knitting Factory Entertainment, Okayplayer, Okayafrica

Director: Alex Gibney

Producers: Jack Gulick, Alex Gibney

Executive producers: Ruth Hendel, Stephen Hendel

Director of photography: Maryse Alberti

Music: Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Editor: Lindy Jankura

Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 120 minutes.