Sundance Review: Fela Kuti’s Wild Life of Sex, Drugs, and Afrobeat Takes Center Stage in FINDING FELA
BY MARY SOLLOSI
FINDING FELA, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest work, faces the challenge of depicting a contradictory artist. But that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. On the contrary, the film — about the life, times and music of Afrobeat superstar and Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti — is exceptionally watchable. Kuti’s wild life never loses its surprise ingredients: from the time he married 27 girls in one ceremony to his involvement with a “spiritual guru” who slit throats for party demonstrations. The film’s challenge lays in its difficult hero, an enormously talented and charismatic man who was also troubled, stubborn, unpredictable, and probably not entirely sane.
FINDING FELA provides a comprehensive look at Kuti’s life. The numerous interview subjects include his bandmates, children, friends, scholars and famous fans, all of whom have fascinating stories and insight to share, and the carefully chosen footage of Kuti himself — onstage or off, always wielding a more enormous joint and wearing a more lurid jumpsuit — makes obvious what a magnetic presence he had, and how he was able to attract such a following.
The documentary doesn’t merely examine the musician himself, however, but also the cast and crew of the 2009 Broadway musical “Fela!,” which was based on the events of Kuti’s life, in both development and performance. This inclusion adds an interesting new angle to the more straightforward documentary approach that characterizes the rest of FINDING FELA, partly because it supplements the film’s narrative with stage-musical interpretations of many episodes in Kuti’s life, but also in large part because the makers of the musical, in figuring out how to portray this historical figure, struggle with the same questions about Kuti as the viewers of the documentary. As stage director Bill T. Jones says about getting to the heart of his enigmatic protagonist, “The mystery is the madness. What is compelling to me is the madness in him.”