FINDING FELA (Alex Gibney). 119 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (August 22). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
The problem with Finding Fela is that it has the real Fela Kuti right in front of it and chooses to focus on an impersonation instead.
Roughly half of Alex Gibney's documentary about the life and legacy of the Nigerian musician-turned-political-activist is made up of footage of Fela!, a recent Broadway musical directed by Bill T. Jones and starring Sahr Ngaujah as the visionary Afrobeat pioneer.
Gibney has a great deal of access to the stage show, which is surely why Jones and Ngaujah end up discussing their subject at greater length than Fela himself is allowed. Sure, Kuti died in 1997, but he left plenty of interviews and material behind, especially after his political awakening during a 1969 stay in Los Angeles, where he found common cause with the Black Panthers.
The split in perspective means that every intriguing story from Fela's life must lead to a big production number from Fela! - and while the show certainly looks vivid and inventive, the stylization distances us from the biographical narrative.
I can't help feeling a straight exploration of the subject would have been a more satisfying approach. At the very least, Fela would have been able to speak - and sing - for himself.