The documentary deluge in which we are still mired is so often lazily acknowledged as “a positive thing”. Our collective, unblinking admiration for the typical combination of liberal politics and gentle educational zeal has conditioned us to accept the creeping homogenisation of a cinematic from. We see more and more documentaries in the cinema and yet the medium has become distinctly unambitious, relying on over-familiar structural tedium and drably televisual aesthetics. We should demand more from the art form. Thank heavens then for the sporadic spice in the vanilla; the bucolic innovations of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and the intellectual confrontations of Werner Herzog and Josh Oppenheimer.
Finding Fela (2014) is Alex Gibney’s fourth film in just 18 months. The preceding three form a thematic trilogy; sober correctives of sociological phenomena that have all been beset by hysterical media discourse. His latest eases off on the cultural urgency and, while relatively conventional for Gibney, still finds the director in passionate, rigorous form. It is a portrait of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. True to form, the director keeps his gaze as wide as possible, taking in all the familial, musical and sociological conditions that made the musician the man he was. Gibney allows himself sufficient time to dig and give the subject the scope he deserves. The only significant misstep is the heartfelt documentary’s framing device; a part puff- piece, part behind-the-scenes exposé of a Fela Broadway musical.
A host of stage lovies dispense with the usual inanities about rebels and legends and, while the show itself does look visually sumptuous, there is a distinct whiff of one-world earnestness about the whole endeavour. As soon as Gibney breaks free from it, he’s back in gear. He’s a director whose films find their tone both from their subject and the way we relate to them. In this sense, he’s blessed with Kuti, whose remarkable music gives the film energy. It’s rather surprising to feel a documentary rattle and pulsate in this way, especially by a filmmaker like Gibney. The director is fascinated by Kuti. The self-mythologising is strangely becoming, giving the singer a spiritual air that sits in comfortable contrast with the earthy musical outlaw. He is at once a prophet and a man of the people.
Finding Fela is unquestionably at its best when the personal and the political collide. The way Kuti lived was deemed by the military government of Nigeria to be a direct affront to them. Life itself was a form of rebellion. We are whirled through the great records, from Gentleman to He Miss Road, but what resonates – beyond the quality itself – it the way the music was fashioned into a revolutionary weapon. Slogans and grooves became a form of attack; in this, we sense the unique power of art. It’s not Gibney firing on all cylinders, but he still hits on some vital, enduring truths.
Finding Fela is released in UK cinemas on 5 September through Dogwoof. For info, visit dogwoof.com/findingfela.