A new Alex Gibney film is always something to be excited about. Whether it was the piercing insight into national security with We Sell Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, or casting a refreshingly transparent eye on sport icon Lance Armstrong in The Armstrong Lie, Gibney has forged an extraordinarily impressive back catalogue not just in terms of quality, but of proliferation. His latest to grace Sundance London is another look at an influential figure, this time round the legendary musician Fela Kuti.
Afrobeat, the genre which Fela helped forge and popularise, is key to telling the story of political outrage and African empowerment at the centre of Africa from the ’70s through to the early ’90s. Gibney understands this from the outset of Finding Fela!, by using the current Broadway musical, Fela!, which focuses on the life and politics of the singer as a backbone for modern opinion on the man. Comment, ranging from directors and producers of the show, to a plethora of journalists, to his own sons and daughters, revere him with the sense of a true legend, putting him in the same cultural melting pot as Bob Dylan, sometimes as if the man were a ghost before he was even dead. But each recollection of Fela’s grapple with the African government, or the way he treated his ever-growing posse of admirers, is flecked with the sad understanding that no one ever truly knew him, even those closest (including his twenty-seven wives). His passion for his music clearly annexed his passion for people, all except his mother – who was an incredibly influential force on the young Fela for getting involved (or rather, entangled) in his country’s future. But this mystery is at the core of what makes him a figure so ripe for examination.
Aside from its central performance (and Fela is always ‘performing’, even when cameras aren’t around), the documentary itself does suffer on some small points. Despite Gibney flying the flag for capital-T Truth in each of his fantastic works (putting even himself under his intense gaze in The Armstrong Lie), Finding Fela! does begin by feeling like an embellished advert for the stage musical. Of course, to fund a doc of such rich cultural insight and assembling a large and varied cast of interviewees will always, obviously, cost a lot of money – and Broadway is obviously willing to foot the bill. It’s commendable, then, that Gibney almost seems to shout this at us from the very start, setting the scene quickly with a background of the musical; it’s only revisited a few times for the rest of the duration, turning what could have been a shallow and tedious reference point into a self-knowing framing device which is perfect for providing a contemporary understanding of his legacy.
Gibney makes sure Finding Fela! isn’t about the musical – which is most definitely referenced to in the film’s title with its mirroring exclamation mark – but another reliably superb look at an expert musician and an ambitious political figure, but more importantly, it shows Fela as a flawed human being. The film itself is a more minor hit for the director, sometimes trapped in convention but always given momentum by the high level of craft apparent in every frame. But it’s Fela’s show; he’s an endlessly compelling character, an icon to be adored on stage and ambivalent toward at home, who nevertheless left footprints deep enough for the rest of his country to find and follow in form.