The "Fela" of the title is Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-97), Nigerian Afrobeat musician, composer, provocateur, and cultural icon;
Finding Fela! is maverick documentarian Alex Gibney's two-hour biography of the controversial figure. Gibney proceeds more or less chronologically through Kuti's life, though he also uses the Bill T. Jones Broadway musical Fela! as a guide to its many phases, cutting between standard documentary footage and scenes from the stage show with an electric, sweat-drenched Adesola Osakalumi playing Kuti. Throughout, Gibney also interpolates interview snippets with fans such as Jones, Sir Paul McCartney, and others, all of whom reminisce about Kuti's life, exploits, and impact. From the standpoint of documentary craftsmanship, the film is above board; in terms of Gibney's catalogue, it is minor. Nothing that happens on camera goes awry in any egregious way, but this motion picture lacks the heightened sense of investigative discovery and revelation that Gibney's masterful Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mea Maxima Culpa, and the virtually flawless We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks possessed. One could argue that that can be attributed to the timing of the subject: Kuti passed away around a decade prior to the initial stages of this film, which was in production for at least five years. More likely, though, it's a product of the picture's surprising failure to establish our sense of Kuti as a serious political force. Onscreen tales of his reckless lifestyle (such as anecdotes detailing his sexual profligacy, drug use, and various other debaucheries) are entertaining, but the movie calls attention to its own flaw when one of the commentators observes -- in so many words -- that Kuti was never organized or focused enough to be considered a major revolutionary presence. Okay, we say to ourselves, that's all well and good, but how then is it possible that Kuti attained the posthumous status of an African political icon? We never quite gain that insight. What the film does provide is an involving, occasionally provocative meditation on the links between history and theater, life and art. In addition to an overarching suggestion that Fela spent decades obsessively attempting to sculpt his world into one flamboyant, outrageous performance piece -- a perspective for which the movie builds a persuasive and compelling case -- there are extended backstage observations of the struggles that Jones and his team faced as they tried to mold Kuti's wild and colorful life into a commercially viable Broadway production. These sequences feel remarkable -- awe-inspiring, engrossing, thought-provoking -- and to Gibney's credit, they are also not without humor, as when one of the commentators reasonably asks how it is possible to create on-stage musical numbers from tunes authored by a musician whose performances seldom clocked in at less than 30 or 45 minutes per song. As an added bonus: Jones himself is so vibrant and interesting that you almost wish Gibney had forgotten Fela and focused entirely on the choreographer. Viewers who walk in hoping for a serious political exploration of Kuti's life and legacy -- something one expects on the basis of Gibney's prior work -- may feel a bit let down by this picture. However, those willing to forego politics and approach the movie as an examination of theater and a study of a beguiling character will feel amply rewarded.
All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern