It doesn’t take Finding Fela long to sink its claws in. In fact, the whole process lasts about as long as it takes for the baseline to land. Swept along on the rhythms of Fela Kuti’s intoxicating afrobeat sound and irrepressible personality, acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney offers a fascinatingly flawed look at the life and times of a musician who transcended his craft to become an icon across Africa.
Taking a 2008 off-Broadway musical about Fela’s life as his hook, Gibney applies his well-honed formula to explore the man behind the music and the legend. Moving through his life, Gibney traces his beginnings, the development of his sound, the violent clashes with the government that followed his refusal to bow down to repression, and his desire to speak out against the abuse of power that led to the subjugation of so many.
Wisely recognising Fela’s most enduring legacy, Gibney allows his music to soar. Whether through clips from the Fela musical or archive recordings, the film unfolds with music playing almost continually in the background. Soulful and energetic, Fela’s unique sound sends shivers of electric delight running right through the heart of Finding Fela. This, allied with an impressive collection of talking heads, exhaustively absorbing archive footage and fluid editing paints a potent picture of his life.
Hard as it is not to get sucked in by the mood, Finding Fela is not without its flaws. There’s an incongruity in making a conventional documentary about such an unconventional man. Fitting Fela’s free spirit into a disciplined documentary style does a disservice to the man, neatly packaging up a chaotic life. The intensely personal focus on Fela clouds his wider impact, never really putting his political battles in the right context. There is also a slightly one-sided feel as Fela is granted leniency, particularly in regard to his regressive attitude to women and reckless approach to aids, issues that required a brighter light to be shone on them.
For all that though, Gibney highlights a talented man who became much loved for his prodigious musical ability and dogged refusal to let wrongs go quietly into the night. Most of all it’s the stunning afrobeat music that shines through, both complex in arrangement and simple in emotional impact. Given that Fela claimed all you needed to know about him can be found in his songs, perhaps that’s enough.
Click here for more on Finding Fela.