Perhaps fitting for a celebration of a musician whose polyrhythmic extravaganzas tended to run 20-plus minutes, Alex Gibney’s doc Finding Fela takes a while to get started. The opening scenes focus on rehearsals for Broadway’s Fela!, and in the early going, Gibney shows us more footage of stage-Fela Sahr Ngaujah than of the Afro-pop pioneer himself — an odd choice but not a tragic one, since the too-short musical performances of both prove thrilling and hypnotic.
A pair of talking-head notables offers what play as apologies for the haphazard structure of Gibney’s film: Bill T. Jones, the Broadway show’s choreographer and co-author of its book, admits that the theater reduced the complex Fela to just two dimensions, and we see him and Ngaujah hashing over how to present Fela’s polyamorous hedonism without alienating Manhattan audiences. Questlove, meanwhile, describes his own initial uncertainty about Fela!: How true to its hero could it be if the songs didn’t run the length of an album side?
Finding Fela also reduces its subject and skimps on the epicness of his art, but once it gets going, it’s fine, a somewhat scattered précis of the life and accomplishment of one of the 20th century’s towering musicians, activists, and curiosities.
Still, as Gibney dashes through histories of Nigeria’s civil wars, Fela’s declaration of his Lagos home as an independent republic, his discovery of James Brown, and his subsequent invention of Afro funk, his constant public weed-smoking, his courage in recording antimilitary political music and his numerous arrests for doing so, his simultaneous marriages and eventual death from AIDS, it’s hard not to wonder: Why waste time showing us rehearsals for a Broadway show?