The life of revered Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti almost feels too unwieldy and ambitious to fit into just one feature-length documentary, but Alex Gibney makes a good fist of it with Finding Fela (2014). The many facets of his career splinter off into a series of dramatically rich threads after an upbringing in an academic middle class environment with a mother who was a renowned feminist campaigner. Founder of jazz-funk infused musical movement Afrobeat, Kuti was a heavily politicised figure who was repeatedly arrested and savagely beaten by the Nigerian government, before finally being jailed for his outspoken views.
Kuti lived an exhilarating and sexually voracious existence before succumbing to an illness brought on by AIDS in the latter nineties, a condition he was naively and stubbornly in denial about. It provides Gibney with much ground to cover, and to avoid crafting merely a string of anecdotes, he carefully and rigorously reconstructs the life of his subject utilising footage from the recent Broadway musical biography, Fela!, to coalesce Kuti’s timeline. The affiliation of stage and screen works incredibly well, with clips from the production filling in the narrative gaps when necessary, and the behind-the-scenes footage of stage director Bill T. Jones finding his way around the central character works as an entry for an audience, many of whom may not necessarily be steeped in the history of the subject matter.
With a rather hefty running time of two hours, Gibney keeps a strong pace, incorporating the theatre and archival elements seamlessly. The theatre inserts add vibrancy and depth to the film, raising it from standard biopic to something much more satisfying. The Kuti stage character is given a heightened, almost mythological rendering, and it’s reassuring to see that Gibney doesn’t shy away from the more challenging, somewhat contradictory real-life figure. Kuti’s unappealing traits are here for all to see, including his shockingly archaic and deeply misogynist view of women. A serial polygamist and adulterer, one misguided stunt saw him marry twenty-seven woman at once (an event which could almost form the basis of a standalone documentary).
Ultimately, these unsavoury attributes are part of what makes Kuti intriguing, and if the first half of the film is a jubilant celebration of his life, the latter part is a sobering look at the ramifications of his outspoken political views. Occasionally the incredible music which grew out of the turmoil in his life is given short thrift (Kuti’s almost shamanic stage presence is really something to observe) but more often than not, Finding Fela is a rewarding portrait of a fascinating figure which will appeal deeply to fans, while also working as the perfect primer for newcomers to his legacy.