Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti was largely unknown in the U.S. until the Tony nominated Broadway musical "Fela!" opened in 2009. Documentarian Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") looks at the political activist who used music as a tool to reach the masses as governments sent in troops to stop him alongside the development of the musical based on his life in "Finding Fela!"
And what Gibney gives us is 2/3 of a compelling documentary, the final third resembling a smoothly assembled rough cut in need of editing. It's a pity the film eventually wears us down, because here was an opportunity for a Russian nesting doll of a movie where musical art is used politically, theatrical art is used to relay the musical artist's history with the art of filmmaking weaving the two together.
After setting the historical background for Fela's musical ascendency, Gibney gives the stage to "Fela!" director/choreographer Bill T. Jones as he wrestles with how to refract aspects of his subject's life through the prism of a Broadway musical. The problems are considerable, as Fela's music typically ran twenty minutes and more in length (a problem whose solution we never do hear about) and the man was a paradox, a man of the people who came from educated privilege, a man whose mother represented anti-Colonialism treated women like second class citizens, controversially marrying over twenty at the same time. There is also the relationship between Fela and James Brown, a man whom Fela said would be 'forever chasing Africa,' yet who was clearly an influence (and vice versa).
The film is at its most lively when Gibney cross cuts between scenes from the Broadway show and the events which inspired them. Singer Sandra Isidore contrasts the years between falling in love with Fela and Nigeria, attaining status as the 'American Negress,' and those when she realized her identity had been lost amidst his harem. We see the introduction of marijuana with a huge spliff that seems exaggerated for the stage until we see the real thing. But the very best parts of Fela are those which focus on the music. We get a great explanation of what vamp is, Fela's music rarely changing chords. We also learn how he built his songs by adding instruments into the mix, arranging a circular tune which grows ever larger in its orchestration. Paul McCartney pops up to describe how he wept hearing Fela, one of the great musical experiences of his life. His music was boldly political, the release of a single often landing him in jail.
The final act of the film runs out of steam, perhaps because Gibney sticks to the historical record of his later travails and death from AIDS, largely abandoning the musical. In ways, "Finding Fela!" the documentary is almost as much a paradox as the man himself, stuffed full of information but leaving nagging questions, making us move to the music before hammering us into submission.
Robin also gives "Finding Fela!" a C+.
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