There are at least two Felas in the documentary “Finding Fela.” One is the actual Fela Kuti, the late Nigerian singer, musician and pioneer of the Afrobeat musical style, who died of complications from AIDS in 1997. The other is the title character in “Fela!,” the wildly popular off-Broadway musical which jumped to Broadway in 2009, garnering 11 Tony nominations and three wins.
The captivating and meticulous new film by Alex Gibney (“The Armstrong Lie”) is both a standard biography and a making-of movie, blending concert and interview footage of Fela, as he was universally known (even to his children), with scenes from rehearsals and performances of “Fela!”
At times, early in the movie, you might wonder whether you’re watching the real guy or the actor who played him onstage, Sahr Ngaujah. But the real Fela had many more faces. Was he a politically progressive thorn in the side of Nigeria’s military government (which jailed and beat him) or a piggish sexist, who believed that women should be subservient to men and who married 27 “queens” in a single 1978 ceremony?
Was he a thoughtful and outspoken critic of corruption or a party-hearty pothead, more interested in sparking giant spliffs than revolution? A skeptical, Western-educated thinker or a naive dupe, known for traveling around the country with his personal spiritual adviser, a Ghanaian magician named Professor Hindu? A clear-eyed truth-teller or a man in denial, who would insist, even when he started developing skin lesions from Kaposi’s sarcoma near the end of his life, that he was simply “shedding” his old skin?
The answer is that he was probably all of these things, including the one, unequivocal characterization: a musical genius. The film contains plenty of snippets of his infectiously danceable, politically charged songs — which commonly run on for 20 minutes or more, in sometimes incomprehensible pidgin English — along with interviews with those singing his praises. Paul McCartney and Roots bandleader Questlove are among those who testify to Fela’s brilliance. But the man’s music, which was influenced by Christian hymns, classical music, jazz, the soul music of James Brown, Yoruba chant and horn- and guitar-heavy “highlife,” speaks loudest of all.
It is for these reasons that Gibney’s film is called “Finding Fela.” Gibney goes looking for him, guided by Bill T. Jones, who directed “Fela!” On camera, Jones acts as a sort of safari leader, hacking away at the thicket of thorny contradictions that surrounded Fela, in the hopes of shaping a coherent yet honest portrait of the man.
Eventually, over the course of two hours, that portrait emerges, not by cutting away the weeds, but by allowing them to grow back.
Like Fela’s complex, long-winded music, such a portrait requires time. One of Fela’s colleagues reminisces about a conversation with a record-label rep, who asked him, absurdly, exactly which “three-minute section” of a half-hour Fela opus should be played on the radio. In order to find Fela, you have to take in the whole picture. As “Fela!” costume designer Marina Draghici puts it, that entails both a saint and a crazy man.
★ ★ ★ ½
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains images of brutality, obscenity, drug use and a glimpse of a naked derriere. 120 minutes.