Too much Broadway in Fela Kuti documentary
Finding Fela, from prolific documentary-maker Alex Gibney, is ostensibly about pioneering Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.
But a more precise title would have been Finding FELA!, since so much of the content and structure of the film is taken from FELA!, the Tony-winning Broadway musical of 2009.
You spend nearly as much time looking at and listening to actor Sahr Ngaujah as you do the actual bandleader, who died of AIDS in 1997. The constant flipping between stagecraft and reality creates a dissonant static that prevents any satisfying connection with the film.
Busy and disjointed, Finding Fela covers the biographical basics of its subject - his melding of jazz, American soul, and Ghanian highlife music into a distinctive invigorating style dubbed Afrobeat, the bustling commune he established in Lagos and declared an independent republic, his daring agitation against the military government in Nigeria.
Yet, the film dwells more on Fela's eccentricities (like his 1978 marriage to 28 women) than on his stirring compositions. Fela's music is admittedly difficult to capture, favoring dilatory arrangements that would noodle with a groove for 15 minutes before even getting to the lyrics and main melody.
His slow-cook style is one of the reasons he wasn't a bigger star internationally: Fela's 20- to 30-minute tracks didn't lend themselves to radio play.
But with all the performance footage Gibney had available, it seems curious that the most significant musical moment in the film is the stage production's version of "Zombie." It's like making a Beatles' movie and letting Joe Cocker sing the theme.
Finding Fela is punctuated by commentary from a stream of participants including his children, biographers, Questlove, and drummer Tony Allen, Fela's longtime collaborator often credited with cocreating the Afrobeat sound.
The primary personality in the film is not Fela, but Bill T. Jones, who wrote, choreographed, and directed FELA! And he comes across as exceedingly pretentious.
Fela Kuti is certainly deserving of a documentary treatment, but it seems almost ludicrous to refract it through the prism of a Broadway show.
Finding Fela ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Alex Gibney. With
Fela Kuti, Yeni Kuti, Femi Kuti, Sahr Ngaujah. Distributed
by Kino Lorber.
Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (profanity).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.