A musician like Fela Ransome-Kuti comes along once in a century. A sonic innovator and a political revolutionary, the Nigerian pioneer of Afrobeat (along with drummer Tony Allen, musical director of Kuti's greatest group, Africa '70) released dozens of records and played countless concerts that thrilled and inspired millions of people—and scared the hell out of his government. Kuti—who died of AIDS-related complications in 1997 at age 58—was a pugnacious, libidinous combination of James Brown, Bob Marley, and Che Guevara. An iconoclastic icon, Kuti lived an almost inconceivably large life.
Alex Gibney's documentary Finding Fela uses the making of the hit 2009 Broadway musical Fela! as a framing device to help recount Kuti's momentous existence. Gibney zooms in on Fela! choreographer Bill T. Jones strategizing with his writers, actors, and other accomplices about how best to tell this man's big story. Gibney also weaves footage from the play itself with interviews involving journalists, Kuti's children, his biographers, band members, and his American lover, Sandra Izsadore—who exposed him to the Black Power movement and the works of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver during a 1969 visit to Los Angeles with his band Koola Lobitos.
This panoptic portrait of Kuti is rounded out with scenes of his extraordinary bands in action, his daily life in Kalakuta Republic (a compound that served as a communal living space and recording studio, and to which Kuti conferred nation status), and archival interviews. What emerges is a figure who thrived amid chaos and excess—in 1977, he married 27 women in one ceremony. How Kuti had time to take a shit, let alone produce dozens of galvanizing albums, rehearse his bands for thousands of marathon shows, spend time with his many (too many) wives, and pay attention to his three children is something you ponder while watching Finding Fela. Yet Kuti somehow found the time to keep the machine well-oiled, ruling his musicians with a perfectionist zeal and creating disciplined, trance-inducing songs—riotous fusions of highlife and jazz—that continue to influence musicians worldwide. As the Roots' Questlove says in the film, Kuti's music is "one hundred percent adrenaline groove—the more it repeats, the more it affects you."
Along with generous portions of Kuti's sprawling back catalog on the soundtrack and his Afrobeat all-stars in action, the film shows how his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti—Nigeria's foremost women's rights activist—was key to his rebellious spirit. When Nigerian soldiers ransacked Kalakuta in 1978, they not only savagely beat Fela Kuti, they threw his mother out of a window, sending her into a coma. She died two months later. Furious, Kuti carried his mother's coffin to the president's office in protest. Her death and Kalakuta's destruction didn't thwart Kuti—they emboldened him. He continued to wield his music like a weapon and, despite frequent state-sponsored repression, even tried to run for president.
As for the use of footage from the musical Fela!, it feels like a crutch and retroactive product placement. Although Bill T. Jones dispenses many perceptive insights, Kuti's story can stand on its own. The real Fela Kuti deserves an exclamation mark far more than the Broadway one.