Fri August 8, 2014

'Finding Fela' Pits A Documentarian's Case Against The Subject's Art

The new documentary Finding Fela is about a Nigerian musician who made his art political, and the film is made by a director who specializes in the political. Alex Gibney, the maker of Finding Fela, is known best for two investigative documentaries – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Taxi to the Dark Side, his film about American torture practices, which won an Oscar.

Gibney typically cooks up a healthy dose of outrage and he’s a good researcher who builds a case like a prosecutor.

His new documentary, Finding Fela is cooler than those others, and it’s got music. But slowly you realize that the anger and outrage are still there – they’re just not Gibney’s directly. Finding Fela is a biography, of sorts, of the dazzling Nigerian singer and political figure Fela Kuti, who carried plenty of his own fury within his remarkable music.

Born in 1938; Kuti lived through some of the colonial period in Nigeria, and the chaos, civil war and corrupt political regimes that followed. He absorbed into his music an instinctive political consciousness; he sang and spoke of his care for the poor and his contempt for the leaders of his country. Fela Kuti was like a whirlwind of influences and energy. From the clips in the movie, Kuti must have been a mesmerizing performer. He has a big band behind him; he talks politics; his songs actually name the villains. He was beloved in Nigeria, and beyond, and audiences went wild when he performed. His music brought together traditional African music, African-American jazz, some European music, and it all feels like a magical, vibrant dance.

But he was no angel.

He lived what some might see as a scandalous life. At one point he married 27 women; he had regressive notions of the social roles of men and women. He carried on like a cult leader at times; he may well have simply gone drunk on celebrity. He had fantasies about becoming Nigeria’s president. He also came from an upper class family – the dictator who ordered an attack on his compound and had Kuti jailed and tortured, was an old family friend and schoolmate. His two brothers are physicians important in Nigeria’s anti-AIDS campaign, yet Kuti claimed that AIDS was something like a state of mind, and he died of the disease.

To get at all this contradiction and complication, director Alex Gibney honors the hodg-podge. The movie jumps back and forth between archival footage of Fela Kuti performing, talking and receiving adulation on the street, and newer footage from the production of a Broadway show about his life. The old footage is shot in the older screen ratio of 4:3, and some of it is in black and white – so as you watch Finding Fela the image on screen keeps changing shape and color, which is a good description of Fela Kuti – he was, in his way, uncontainable.

But the film starts to wallow in information. The interviews with Kuti’s children, a former American girlfriend, and the makers of the Broadway show are important and interesting; there’s just too much.

Alex Gibney is a thorough collector of material, and he’s the kind of filmmaker who tends to make a case for something – based on lots of evidence. His film about Enron piled on the proof that the people who ran the company were stinkers. The Armstrong Lie mounted the evidence to prove that Lance Armstrong is a stinker. Finding Fela doesn’t have to make a case; it’s a portrait of an artist, and it’s too bad that at times this portrait won’t let the music speak for itself.

For all his weirdness, megalomania and self-indulgence, Fela Kuti fought a grand battle against oppression and corruption with unique artistry. He created what’s called “afrobeat,” and the film of Fela Kuti performing are thrilling. Finding Fela tells the story and tells that Fela Kuti was a great political artist. It’s too bad that the film doesn’t just shut up once in a while to let that art have its way with us.

We’ll all get the point.


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