Fela Kuti finally gets his own documentary with "Finding Fela." Credit: Kino Lorber
‘Finding Fela’ Director: Alex Gibney Genre: Documentary Rating: NR 2 (out of 5) Globes
It’s been easy to hate on Alex Gibney, who cranks out documentaries — sometimes two or three a year — about every hot topic there is. Enron, torture, Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer, WikiLeaks, Lance Armstrong — he’s wound up hogging all of them, nabbing them before filmmakers with more time can even make move. Perhaps inevitably, the fast pace leads to frustratingly shallow work. Gibney makes documentaries the way a high school student puts together a history report: He gets the facts right (sometimes) but misses a crucial essence.
That approach might be more forgivable for a news item, but not for something like music, which requires more than someone summarizing basic facts. With “Finding Fela,” Gibney tries to nail what’s great about Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti. Brian Eno once said there were three great beats in the ’70s: Neu!, James Brown and Fela Kuti. Indeed, Kuti’s songs average 10 to 15 minutes, letting listeners get lost in infectious grooves then walloping them with fiery rhetoric, finding a perfect balance between the political and the ass-shaking.
Fela Kuti is seen in his homebase in Africa in "Finding Fela." Credit: Francis Kertekian/Rikki Stein
Gibney get the political, but he doesn’t get the ass-shaking. He smartly recognizes that Kuti’s lyrics can be obscure, usually concerning Nigeria’s corrupt government. Their relationship was combative: Police and government agents would attack Kuti in some fashion; he would strike back with hit records. The specifics of what he’s singing aren’t always clear to those outside of Nigeria, or outside of the ’70s, and Gibney does his best to serve as annotator, having family and friends put the songs back into context. He’s more interested in his politics than his music, which is admirable considering many of his contemporary listeners mostly fixate on those addictive beats.
Then again, “Finding Fela” has no rhythm itself. Gibney tries for something ambitious: He structures the film not only around his life but around the making of “Fela!” the hit Broadway musical that shuffled through his life in a sort of cabaret not unlike the Shrine at which he would perform nightly. But Gibney’s not exacting enough a filmmaker to make the weave work. Each cut from the real to the staged is clumsy, and it doesn’t help that the actor playing Kuti, while getting his passion, has little of his swagger and sex appeal.
For all its delving into his politics, it only goes so deep, and it only touches on the actually fascinating problems “Fela!”’s creators voice as they mount their show: Are they making it too entertaining or too preachy? And how do you do a two-hour jukebox musical for someone whose songs need their epic lengths? (It doesn’t look like the show solved the latter problem, as each number clocks in around four minutes.) “Finding Fela” is at once a mess and a literal-minded take on an instinctive subject, one that summarizes rather than feels.