Through a fluke of timing, Alex Gibney’s documentary “Finding Fela!” is opening in the Boston area not long after the release of the James Brown biopic “Get on Up.” Each movie plays perfectly well on its own, but some enterprising theater owner should really book the two as a double bill — or maybe wait until Gibney’s own in-progress Brown documentary, “Mr. Dynamite,” opens. The rhythms with which Brown revolutionized American popular music came straight from the Mother Continent; those same rhythms, imported back overseas and evolving into Afrobeat, helped galvanize the life, times, and tunes of the greatest African rocker of them all.
Fela Kuti just took his revolution much further. To my knowledge, he remains the only pop star to have declared his own house an independent republic, to have the military government send in assault troops in response (killing the singer’s mother in the process), to have married 27 wives in one go, and to endure multiple arrests while his albums decried government corruption and ruled the national airwaves. Before AIDS finally killed him in 1997, at 58, Fela lived about a dozen “Behind the Music” episodes on his own.
What his life doesn’t sound like is the stuff of New York stage musicals. Still, there “Fela!” was in a 2008 off-Broadway run — it moved to Broadway the following year and racked up 11 Tony nominations — and there Gibney (“The Armstrong Lie,” “We Steal Secrets: The Wikileaks Story”) lands with his camera as director-choreographer Bill T. Jones battles with the conundrums of fitting a huge, messy life into a couple of hours (plus intermission).
Jones, a charismatic force of nature himself, is struggling with notions of representation, authenticity, and Fela’s less salutary character traits (notably his sexism). How much of the real Fela can a Broadway audience handle? The question propels the early scenes, but at a certain point Gibney just forks off from the backstage drama to investigate the story on his own.
That story, if you don’t know it, is one of the great sagas of post-WWII world-music culture: how a Nigerian kid from a wealthy family incorporated James Brown funk, Yoruba chanting, and insanely tight horn charts into a music that united sub-Saharan Africa into one giant post-colonial dance party. How weed, women, and politics turned Fela into a unique figure: a dangerous radical hedonist. How he and his entourage literally seceded from Nigeria into his Lagos compound, and how Fela responded to the ensuing raid by taking the coffin containing the body of his mother — herself a legendary activist — to the steps of the local military barracks. (He also wrote the searing “Coffin for Head of State.”) How Fela died of a disease in a country too scared to talk about it.
Gibney lays out the full picture, availing himself of terrific concert footage, archival materials, and interviews with Fela’s colleagues and family members (including eldest son and musical heir Femi Kuti). The portrait that emerges is of a larger-than-life personality who seems to have been closer to those who didn’t know him than those who did. (Again, much like Brown.)
Why didn’t Fela become a superstar in the US, as Bob Marley did in the 1970s? That’s easy: Fela’s music, whether with Afrika ’70 or the even more politicized Egypt 80, specialized in awesome groove rather than melody, with songs rolling on like a river for eight minutes, 15, 30. “Which three minutes of that 28 do you want me to put on the radio?” a label executive is quoted as asking the singer’s American manager.
Gibney is wedded to the framing structure of his film, which keeps bringing “Finding Fela!” back to “Fela!” the stage production, even when you’d rather stick to the real deal. Ironically, the one area the documentary short-shrifts is Fela’s music: how it was made, its elements and influences, the interlocking nature of its parts. The early songs are a celebration; the later music is a weapon. It would be nice to get more of both, but for that there are the reissued CDs, not to mention this film’s soundtrack, a decent sampler.
Without coming out and saying as much, “Finding Fela!” explores the purpose of biography itself — whether we use it to earnestly ennoble or dispassionately record. Despite occasional misgivings, Jones erred on the side of the former with his musical, and Gibney ends up doing the same with his film. But once you hear Fela’s music, how can you blame them? How can you not dance along?