Finding Fela marks new, exciting terrain for workaholic documentarian Alex Gibney, whose most recent films, The Armstrong Lie and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, have strayed in an indulgent direction unbecoming for the filmmaker whose electric political rallying cries found much greater restraint and precision in earlier works like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side. His latest removes himself from the equation entirely by offering a comprehensive, vibrant portrait of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician whose half-hour songs, political activism, womanizing, drug usage, and narcissistic spiritual beliefs are meticulously explored throughout the film’s two-hour runtime.
Gibney is a master of the documentary essay and Finding Fela, in a scholarly sense, essentially amounts to a critical biography, with factual, historical precedent as the film’s anchor, but enough subjective, sometimes clashing perspectives to generate a provocative sense of outrage and urgency. Gibney catalyzes the proceedings by vacillating between Fela’s dynamic on-stage presence, interviews from talking heads of various significance, and footage from the 2009 Broadway show Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who becomes one of the film’s most prominent subjects. Jones is insistent on locating Fela’s crazier inclinations for his show, even calling Fela “crazy” and suggesting that he may have been psychologically unstable. Jones’s statements are contrasted with those who knew Fela in Nigeria, where his presence during the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s merged art and politics into a blistering critique against the Nigerian government. One member of Fela’s commune discusses the political literature they read, then flashes a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X as proof, allusions which usefully informs the film’s dedication to detail-oriented, biographical detail.
Gibney uses archival and Broadway footage so seamlessly that telling the difference between reality and recreation becomes not only difficult, but one of the film’s central metaphors. As the title suggests, Fela can only be found through the mediations that have rendered his dynamic, often contradictory character traits for decidedly personal means. If the press often called him a nihilist, his friends and lovers recount with simultaneous laughter, awe, and tears at just how vivacious he could be in one moment, and cruel the next. The often divergent perceptions seem to carry little bias for Gibney, who remains dedicated to constructing the material into a consistently understated, but deeply engaged inquiry. When police run a marijuana raid on Fela’s compound, Gibney treats it with the same beat and pace as any of the film’s less climactic revelations.
Finding Fela has considerable reverence for its titular subject, but Gibney remains hard-nosed throughout, refusing to let his documentary transform into mere hagiography. Ultimately, the film reveals implicit interests in the act of historiography itself by juxtaposing stage and stage, so to speak, with Fela actually singing in one shot, then the Broadway show in the next. Through this structure, Gibney gestures toward narrative films like Custer of the West or Public Enemies, where characters witness themselves being mythologized shortly before their deaths. Although Fela died of AIDS in 1997 and never witnessed any such process personally, the film asks if such posthumous acts of pop-cultural canonization can truly be celebrated when there’s an understanding that what’s contained within is inevitably beholden to polymorphous prejudices that cannot ever be fully reconciled, no matter how deep the archive goes.