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'Finding Fela!' uses musical bio as entry point to tell Fela Kuti story

MoviesEntertainmentMusical TheaterBroadway TheaterJames Brown
Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney explains how 'Finding Fela!' developed
'Along the way, the real Fela interposed himself and demanded to be heard,' Alex Gibney says
Audiences in Lagos enjoyed 'Fela!' performances

"Finding Fela!" is a hall-of-mirrors documentary that dissects the complex public persona of the late Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti though the lens of the 2009 Broadway musical biography "Fela!"

Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, whose credits include "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," the documentary follows the Broadway cast of "Fela!" to Africa, where they performed for the musical live audiences in Lagos, Nigeria.

The documentary uses the Broadway musical, which was directed by Bill T. Jones, as a way to pose questions about Fela's constantly shifting identity and his penchant for self-reinvention. (The stage musical came to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in 2011.)

Gibney recently spoke by phone about the documentary, which opens Friday at the Nuart. Here are excerpts from the interview.

The movie takes an unconventional approach to Fela's life by using the musical as an entry point. How did it take shape?

It was organic. The film started out as a straight-ahead, cinéma-vérité film about the musical and taking the act to Nigeria — Americans performing a play in front of Nigerians. But along the way, the real Fela interposed himself and demanded to be heard. I realized my journey was the same Bill T. Jones had been on — it seemed an interesting way of framing the life of somebody who died some time ago, and we're rediscovering him now and what made him tick. As we wrestled with the material and structure, it also seemed to have relevance to Fela's own life — he went on his own search trying to figure out who he was, and maybe he got lost along the way.

Where did the idea for the documentary come from?

I had seen ["Fela!"] on Broadway and loved it. I got a call from [producer] Stephen Hendel about doing this — following the cast back to Lagos. That doesn't become clear until the end of the movie. There were a couple of performances that we shot with the Broadway cast and crew, but the original idea for the documentary was Stephen's.

Can you describe what the reaction in Lagos was like to the musical?

It was suddenly like he was alive again. I think the cast and crew were properly terrified by the reaction. They're Americans — would they be accused of inauthenticity? There was some initial skepticism — it was a vibe in early press conferences. But they were quickly overcome by a spirit of generosity and humility.

How long did it take to make the documentary?

Over two years, and that doesn't even count footage that wasn't shot by me of the off-Broadway workshopping.... But I do work on a number of different things at the same time — you take a break, put it aside. Sometimes you make a film about music and then a heavy political documentary. With talented editors, you don't have to be there tapping them on their shoulder.

Were you working on other movies while making "Fela"?

I was also working on the Lance Armstrong documentary ["The Armstrong Lie"]. I've just finished a documentary of James Brown, and I'm working on a four-hour special for HBO on Frank Sinatra.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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