Finding Fela!, a documentary from Alex Gibney (The Armstrong Lie, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) about legendary Nigerian singer/political dissident Fela Kuti, follows the model popularised by the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man. That model, found in the likes of Finding Vivien Maier, The Last Impresario, A Band Called Death – tends to interrogate both the documentary’s (often long-forgotten) subject and the documentarian’s journey to tell their story.
Gibney takes a similar yet different approach, alternating his history of Fela – his music, his woman, his politics and his country – with footage from behind the scenes of the Broadway musical Fela! The juxtaposition of Fela’s colourful past with the producers’ efforts to best represent the man has the potential to provide insight into the art of documentary-making. When artistic director Bill T. Jones struggles to determine how to depict Fela’s death, or his terrible treatment of women, the parallels are unmistakable.
But Gibney increasingly shifts focus from the Broadway show to Fela’s life; the sequences showcasing the show’s production begins to feel incidental rather than integral. The two narratives occasionally complement one another, but too often the time spent on Fela!’s production feels like a distraction from the man himself.