‘Finding Fela!’: a compelling look at Nigerian singer, activist

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“Finding Fela!” is an apt title for this dynamic and thorough documentary by Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”).

The subject is the late musician-composer Fela Kuti, a Nigerian cultural and political hero who pioneered the Afrobeat sound: a fusion of traditional Ghanaian and Nigerian music with jazz, James Brown-style hard funk, vocal chants and a penchant for going on and on for long stretches.

But Kuti — who died from AIDS complications in 1997 and whose first name became iconic in Africa — was so much more, a mass of contradictions that indeed makes one want to “find” the real man. That’s exactly what the noted stage director Bill T. Jones is seen doing as Gibney captures Jones skeptically seeking answers while rehearsing the Tony-winning Broadway musical “Fela!” in 2009.

Jones’ search for Kuti’s motivations — on one hand, as an artist, a champion of human rights and a severe critic of Nigeria’s abusive and corrupt dictatorship (for which he was frequently jailed and beaten); and on the other, as a pot-smoking sexist who “married” 27 “queens” and traveled with a spiritual charlatan — proves both fascinating and vexing.

Yet following Jones’ search, while also telling the real Kuti’s story, gives “Finding Fela!” rich, parallel courses of investigation. Drawing upon interviews with Kuti’s former manager, his American lover, his children, the Roots’ Questlove and Paul McCartney, a complex mosaic arises.

Fortunately, a tremendous amount of footage of Kuti both in performance and conversation exists and is included in Gibney’s film.

One thing is unarguable: Kuti was a charismatic, strong-willed and seemingly fearless personality. It’s no wonder he pushed the boundaries of music and official patience.


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