Sundance London: Finding Fela review

Previously, I was only being half-serious when I called Alex Gibney ‘the Hans Zimmer of documentary filmmakers’ but it’s a comparison that I’m finding more and more appropriate over time.

Gibney, like Zimmer, is incredibly prolific, putting together his documentaries almost as though they’re rolling along a conveyor belt. All of these films are of a reasonably high technical standard, and they’re informative and always engaging. On the other hand, they often feel somewhat unremarkable and lacking any interesting new angle.

Finding Fela, Gibney’s latest and sixteenth film of the past four years, is very much another case of ‘more of the same.’ But despite the familiarity, this is still a somewhat compelling and informative doc on a fascinating figure.

Gibney uses the production of Fela!, a recent broadway play about Fela Kuti, as the spine of his story. He follows Bill T. Jones as he stages some of the production’s musical numbers as a way into the bigger story of the Afrobeat pioneer and political antagonist.

This rather linear approach takes us through Fela’s adult life, introducing us to many people who were close to him and pulling in the viewpoints of those who didn’t know him, necessarily, but still feel a strong connection.

The problem with this approach emerges quickly. Everybody we hear from is very much ‘in the Fela camp’. This isn’t really a hagiography, as we do see many warts – most notably examples of Fela’s appalling misogyny and his late obsession with a spiritual advisor who was clearly a charlatan – but a thin layer of make-up covers them all, and we’re told about all these negative aspects only through the viewpoint of those who loved Kuti in spite of them. There are no truly dissenting voices.

And this selection of contributors also leads to a lack of analysis. Gibney seems at pains to point out how enigmatic a figure Fela was, and does clearly show his misogyny, which contrasts against his mother’s status as a women’s rights activist. But despite Gibney portraying some of Fela’s faults in detail, there’s no meaningful exploration. Fela’s negative attitudes, his alliance with a spiritual advisor and his attitudes towards AIDS, which ultimately took his life, all seem to be linked to his ideas concerning Africanism. But this is only referenced, rather than discussed. We’re expected to accept some superficial explanations of Fela’s most defining views rather than really dig into their roots.

Politics are also brushed aside, invoked on multiple occasions but not investigated. Fela famously referred to music as a weapon, wrote songs that poked fun at those in power in Nigeria, had aspirations to run for office, and was even imprisoned for being so outspoken. All of this is mentioned in Finding Fela but with very little broader context. There’s certainly nothing about the impact of Fela’s views or music on anyone outside of his inner circle.

Interview subjects are shown speaking rapturously about how crowds would come to hear Fela speak, and we see footage of Nigerians treating him like a prophet, but without any implication that this impacted on their lives or influenced any kind political change. Sadly, without any sense of real ramifications, these scenes come across like celebrity worship.

Perhaps, like the record execs, who were unable to market Fela’s albums full of long tracks and spoken word to an audience more used to three minute pop songs, Gibney has tried and failed to distill a long and complex story into a single, palatable documentary.

It’s hard to argue that Finding Fela is a bad documentary, per se, but it is without doubt unfulfilling and sorely lacking in many areas. Gibney’s next doc will reportedly be about James Brown, a man who is similar to Fela in some respects, so lets hope he cracks the code next time around.

Finding Fela has recently been picked up by Dogwoof, who will be releasing it in the UK this September. There’s no word yet on US distribution but it’s unlikely that the film will sit on the shelf for long, given Gibney’s track record and Fela’s fan base.