Two halves of a movie do not necessarily make a whole, a problem that chokes documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest film, Finding Fela. Too much information is crammed between the behind-the-curtain look at the Fela! musical and the colorful life of the man behind the music of Zombie and Confusion. While it works to enlighten and entertain, perhaps it’s best to let one of the stories take center stage.
The movie starts with a piece of Fela Kuti’s legacy, the musical that bears his name and tells his story. Well, a cleaned-up Broadway version of it anyway. As the movie travels through the trajectory of Fela’s life, Gibney depicts a much more complicated man who is less a saint and more of an embattled activist. The documentary follows his journey from choir boy at a private Nigerian school to the radical face that dared to question the corruption he saw around him. We watch as he falls in love with jazz in England and discovers the Black Panther Party in America, then importing and remixing it with local highlife music to create Afrobeat. Fela becomes a popular figure, but not one immune from government scrutiny. He pays for this with several raids and beatings, which brought only more attention to Nigeria’s cruelty.
Director Gibney is clearer in making the distinction between man and myth than Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones’ reverent musical. Both discuss a few of the more problematic beliefs Fela held, like his attitude towards women and his practice of unprotected sex. Unfortunately, because the movie is torn between two stories, interviews are quickly condensed into sound bites that aren’t as fulfilling. Bill T. Jones shares almost as much camera time as Fela’s son, Femi, and much more than the youngest who spoke at his 1997 funeral, Seun. The two groups feel like they’re fighting for screentime rather than sharing it.
During the dance scenes, Gibney is much too unsteady to let the camera capture Bill T. Jones’ choreography. More than once, the lens settles on nothing but gyrating body parts, cutting out the footwork and powerful styling that Jones brings to his dancers. Other times, it’s focused on the Broadway face of Fela, Kevin Mambo, missing the stage elements he’s interacting with. The handheld filming was perhaps the messiest portion of Finding Fela next to the abrupt transitions between the two tales.
Gibney fumbles telling the two stories, and it ultimately causes Finding Fela to unravel. The disjointed rhythm of the movie throws off the groove of Fela’s story and the musical. Considering the documentary chronicles a show that closed on Broadway years ago, it feels strange to have so much of Fela’s musical legacy tied with it. What it does show about Fela Kuti is fascinating, and I wish we saw more of that or even more of Bill T. Jones’ creative process in bringing the towering figure to the Great White Way. Perhaps it’s just as well I give Zombie one more spin. Sometimes it’s better to just listen to the music.
Director: Alex Gibney
Starring: Fela Kuti, Yeni Kuti, Femi Kuti
Release Date: Aug. 1, 2014