Finding Fela

One obvious approach to a Fela Kuti documentary would be to start with a solid, simple vamp, let it go on much longer than seems standard, and just keep folding in new layers until we lift off entirely from the plane on which we began. That’s how the Nigerian Afro-Beat pioneer famously approached his songcraft, after all, and it’s also more or less the trajectory of his public life. But for the lately prolific and increasingly perfunctory filmmaker Alex Gibney, a differently obvious and less compelling approach will do: the documentary boilerplate. As its forgettably of-the-moment title suggests, Finding Fela seems for Gibney more like a marketing decision than a matter of musical or political curiosity. The film keeps track of how, through the 1970s and ’80s, Fela’s funked-up high life evolved into expansive protest music, but the man himself remains at some distance, his legacy unresolved. Time spent behind the scenes of the Broadway hit Fela! only reveals a vitality gap between different presentations of similar material: There’s the dry, conscientious documentary full of faded old footage and talking-head testimony, and then there are the sweaty, vivid stage-stompers. Neither chronology can fully correlate that most familiar Fela image — prowling like a leisure-suited lion over some half-hour trance groove, megaspliff ablaze between his fingers — with the fact of a brutal government push-back that locked him up and killed his mother. And maybe there can never be a full accounting for Fela’s astonishing misogyny, let alone the poignant combination of megalomania and denial with which he saw his own AIDS-related lesions as a kind of transcendent molting. In the end, he did at least get off this plane.