Thursday, August 7, 2014

The complex life of an African musician

If you don't know about the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, director Alex Gibney's sprawling and sometimes irresistible documentary will set you straight. Whether Gibney has captured the soul of Fela will have to be determined by someone more familiar with the singer than I am, but Finding Fela! seems to have plenty to say about an amazing life and the music that resulted from it. You'll also hear enough of the latter to help compensate for any narrative lapses in Gibney's approach. The movie features strong insights from people who knew Fela, but I most appreciated hearing musicians (Questlove, for example) talk about Fela's musical innovations. Nothing if not audacious, Fela once declared his Lagos compound an independent country: His sustained defiance of a succession of Nigerian military strongmen didn't make his life easy. Gibney's movie deals with Fela's political activism, his sexual escapades with women, his celebrity and, most important, his musical influence. Topical to the end, Fela died of AIDs in 1997. Some of the story is told through scenes from the Broadway musical Fela! This structural choice doesn't always work, although it offers an opportunity to watch the play's director -- Bill T. Jones -- struggle to come to grips with a difficult character. At almost two hours, the movie goes on a bit too long, but Finding Fela! makes for a fine introduction to a fascinating figure.

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