Saturday, January 10, 2015

Movie Review: Finding Fela

Finding Fela
Directed by: Alex Gibney.

Fela Kuti was an important figure in African culture during his life. As a musician, he created a genre – Afrobeat – combining many different genres into something wholly original. Through his trips abroad – to London and Los Angeles – he grows a social conscience, and when he returned to Nigeria, he incorporated his newfound politics into his music. All throughout the 1970s, he poked fun at the corrupt leaders who ruled his country – an assortment of military dictatorships – who didn’t like what he was doing, but didn’t really stop him either. During his life, Fela was hugely famous and influential – both in Africa and outside of it. But he wasn’t a saint either. He basically had his own harem – he married 26 women at one time, and believed women should know their place. He used drugs – mainly pot – throughout his life. He died young, at 58, from AIDS – a disease he refused to admit he even had.

The documentary Finding Fela struggles to find a way to tell his story – but its struggles somehow make the film all the more fascinating. It was directed by Alex Gibney – undeniably the most prolific documentarian working today. His breakthrough film was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – and he won an Oscar two years later for Taxi to the Dark Side. Finding Fela is his 10th feature documentary since that Oscar win (and that doesn’t even include various shorts, TV docs – including the excellent Catching Hell about poor Steve Bartman, who many believe cost the Cubs the World Series with a fan interference call. Almost all of his films are good – some of them are even great – but I wonder if they would be better if he made fewer of them. In 2015, we may get 3 more from Gibney – one about James Brown, one about Frank Sinatra and one about Scientology.

Finding Fela feels like two competing documentaries throughout its running time. One is a straight forward biographical documentary, charting Fela's rise, his time at the top, the controversies that he caused, and his eventual death. This is a mixture of archival footage – concert footage and interviews with the man, and present day talking heads, talking about his music and his life. One of the most interesting things about these interviews is that Gibney actually includes some analysis of Fela's music – what made so revolutionary – instead of just paying it lip service. The other documentary is a making of stage show documentary, following Bill T. Jones as he struggles to find a way to turn Fela’s life into a musical – which he eventually did with Fela! Fela’s life presented many challenges for Jones – how to deal with the women, the complicated politics that Jones knows most audiences will be clueless about, how to handle his illness and death (that last one, Jones chose to cut out) – and perhaps most importantly, how to translate the music into a typical musical format. Fela’s songs were not typical songs – they would go on for 20 minutes or more, slowly building until they become an all-encompassing force. You cannot do that in a stage musical – nor can you do that in documentary. So, oddly, the second documentary – the making of musical stage show – mirrors the difficulty that Gibney himself must have had translating Fela’s life into a movie.
Like most documentaries focused on a famous figure then, Finding Fela is probably best for people who don’t know anything about its subject – which fortunately includes me. Gibney seems to be of the same opinion as Jones was when he crafted the musical – that the audience for the film wouldn’t have any clue of the complex political system that Fela fought against, or anything about his music. The film certainly feels like it just skims the surface of the complex man, his times and his music. To a certain extent, it also feels like an advertisement for the musical it portrays as well. The film is never less than fascinating – and if I get a chance, I may well check out the musical at some point. But more than anything, it makes me want to seek out a concert doc of Fela’s. I have a feeling that by watching the man himself on stage for a couple of hours, I may get an even better appreciation for him – and

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