Documentary filmmaking is hard, especially when the thing you’re documenting is missing, obscure, or otherwise difficult to visualize. A number of recent documentaries, however, have made great hay from their absent subjects: Searching for Sugar Man, for example, turns this filmmaking problem into a tale of mystery, while Finding Vivian Maier explores the tension between producing a remarkable body of street photography and wishing to remain personally unremarkable to the point of near-anonymity. Alex Gibney’s Finding Fela promises to do something similar for Nigerian musician, mystic and activist Fela Kuti, but unfortunately delivers something less: a behind-the-music portrait that’s well-crafted and often diverting but ultimately thin on insight.
Director: Alex Gibney
Producers: Alex Gibney, Jack Gulick
Editor: Lindy Jankura
Country: USA, UK, Nigeria, France
Premiere: January 17, 2014 -- Sundance
US Theatrical Release: August 1, 2014
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
This may be in part because Fela had already been found: Bill T. Jones’s wildly successful theatrical musical Fela! introduced the musician, already well known across Africa, to mainstream American audiences in 2009. I’ve never seen the play, but the film often feels its companion piece: the documentary begins and ends with the musical, uses scenes from it as illustration throughout, and positions Jones himself as the film’s proxy narrator. It essentially takes on, whole cloth, his interpretation of Kuti as a “sacred monster” whose mystery is the source of his mad drive.
It might not be totally unfair to say that the documentary is piggybacking on the musical’s success—certainly, a more honest title for Gibney’s film would be Explaining Fela to White People, Again—but using Jones and the musical as the film’s backbone certainly has benefits: it’s a clever way to broach the real representational issues in telling Fela’s story, for example. It’s interesting to hear Jones discourse on his anxieties about watering down Kuti’s radical politics, or reckoning with presenting Kuti’s polygamy and more misogynist views to a Western audience. Most moving is Jones’s decision not to depict Kuti’s death from AIDS: Jones, who is HIV positive, did not want to reduce the meaning of his life to a disease. It’s also one of the few moments the film departs from Jones’s account of Kuti: though it honors Jones’s approach, it also goes where he won’t, discussing the musician’s denial of AIDS (or re-interpretation, you might say) with his family and friends, and showing Fela’s massive (and largely spontaneous) funeral service.
Mostly, however, the documentary is happy to serve as footnotes for the musical. They’re solid footnotes, by and large. Several commentators—his manager, his Black Panther mentor Sandra Smith, and one of his acolytes—provide great detail: none may be great characters, but they give you a good a sense of what it life was like inside his compound, the look in his eyes, or how his funeral unfolded. The editing throughout is efficient and subtle, weaving together a vast trove of archival film and concert footage to bring the mountain-moving musician, who died in 1992, back into view.
Beginning with his early musical education and ending with his death, the film is resolutely chronological, with a few digressions sifted in to explain Nigerian history. The film’s most powerful moments deal with his political commitments: his mother’s death at the hands of the Nigerian military, for example, goes a long way in explaining how he later endured hundreds of arrests and innumerable beatings. Perhaps the film’s greatest intervention, however, is the skillful way it links his musical experimentation with his political development. Not only does it explain the way American soul music influenced his sound and his outlook, for example, but it also connects the formal changes in his music over the 1970s and 80s to events in his life and the life of his nation. His underground single, Zombie, is a prime example: using his signature repetition, lengthy grooves, and wicked sense of humor, Fela satirized the mindless militarization of Nigerian society, essentially weaponizing his music.
It’s disappointing, then, that the film’s own aesthetic arsenal is fairly dull. At two full hours, it’s a relatively long documentary, and yet by the end, I still didn’t feel like I had a great sense of who Fela really was. It never really solves the mystery it sets up, and I often found myself wondering what if they’d done things differently—if the film had focused less on the Broadway production or was more critical of him or simply showed him, in situ, more—in the few interviews it does include, he’s electric. (Maybe the rumored Steve McQueen biopic will be able to put him in front of the camera in ways that Gibney couldn't.)
Or what if the film simply gave us more music? If music was his weapon, maybe his essence would be best described by giving us more Afrobeat, the musical genre he practically invented. The film might’ve taken a page from the stage production it so admires, tossed out typical documentary convention, and gone for something that captured the experience of his music, with its half-hour grooves. “I want you to look at me as something new,” Fela says at the very beginning of the film, introducing himself to a concert audience. He didn’t want the many ideas Westerns have about Africa to cloud their vision of him, and while I’m certainly not accusing this diligent, competent film of neo-colonialism, I do wish it had discovered an approach better matched to the radicalism and originality of its absent but enduring subject.