An audacious performer and iconoclast, the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti proves a challenging subject for a conventional documentary. That's a theme of sorts in Alex Gibney's "Finding Fela!," a film that's admirably comprehensive but disappointingly short on emotional impact.
Amid the densely packed mix of archival material and talking-head interviews, the footage and audio recordings of Fela himself are often electrifying, whether he's in concert or offstage discussing his activism, his polygamy or the communal compound that he built in the city of Lagos and declared independent from Nigeria.
Fela was not only creator of the jazz-funk-highlife combination he dubbed Afrobeat but also a tireless critic of Nigeria's oppressive regime — one who paid dearly for his outspokenness. When he died in 1997, a reported 1 million mourners attended his funeral.
Gibney emphasizes Fela's political importance to the people of his country and throughout Africa. He also traces his musical development, with the help of impassioned commentary from musicians, and shows how the two driving forces in his life were inseparable. Beyond Africa, though, the legacy of a musician whose songs ran as long as 45 minutes is less clear.
In a framing device that addresses the difficulty of summing up such a complex man, Gibney goes behind the scenes of Bill T. Jones' Broadway musical "Fela!," which aimed to capture the transgressive fever of Fela's shows. Jones struggles over the need to simplify the truth in the name of commercially viable entertainment. Gibney, whose previous films have tackled intricate subject matter and profiled complicated people, doesn't simplify Fela's contradictions. His chronicle informs rather than inspires, but it's a solid introduction to a fascinating figure.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 2 hours.