Sunday, January 6, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man Movie Review

Have you ever heard of the folk singer from the early 70’s known as Rodriguez? He released two albums back-to-back. His record producers also worked with such well-known and esteemed acts as Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and other big Motown hits of the era. That’s because Rodriguez was based in Detroit and, well, any big record producer in Detroit in the early 70’s certainly worked with a big Motown act. Rodriguez sold half a million records, was nationally popular, and his music spearheaded a national political movement. You still say you’ve never heard of him? That’s because the only popularity he ever had was in South Africa. The president of the now-defunct record label that put out Rodriguez’s records says he probably sold about six copies in the U.S. No one associated with Rodriguez ever knew of his immense popularity in South Africa.

It is the subject of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, a British and Swedish co-production from Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul. The legend in South Africa says that Rodriguez’s music was introduced by an American traveler visiting a boyfriend and it was passed around in bootleg copies, becoming hugely popular and eventually spurring the revolution that dissolved apartheid due to the freedom local musicians felt after taking his lyrics to heart. But the people of South Africa, his fans, knew nothing about Rodriguez. There were no newspaper or magazine articles, no interviews, nothing. Later, when his records were properly released, they discovered the liner notes provided no additional information on the musician. So when mystery shrouds an artist, what follows are legendary stories of his untimely demise, which in this case centered on dramatic on-stage suicides.

In the 90’s, two men started investigating what happened to Rodriguez. One was a music journalist and the other was a big fan who was asked to write some liner notes for one of Rodriguez’s album releases. They eventually discovered something that no one in South Africa expected. The movie coyly builds to this point, this big revelation, although if you’ve seen the trailer or read the Wikipedia entry on Rodriguez, you won’t be so surprised. SPOILER: Rodriguez isn’t dead. What happens after they discover this fact is what sets the documentary alight and makes everything that came before resonate more deeply.

Through the film’s first hour we listen to men including Rodriguez’s producers, his colleagues in construction, South African music historians and journalists, and members of a band in South Africa that used his music as a jumping off point to feel free to write anti-establishment music of their own. We hear them all speak in elevated language and tone about the brilliance of his music and the great mystery of his lack of popularity in the States. We hear South Africans refer to him as something akin to the voice of a generation. The mythology extends to basically making Rodriguez personally responsible for the end of apartheid. This seems a little far-fetched and the grand praise from everyone grows repetitive if you’re a bit incredulous as I was. That is until you see him perform, finally, before a crowd of 20,000 adoring fans in Cape Town.

Bendjelloul lays out the facts in a concise, and precisely told, story that charts Rodriguez’s short career as a recording artist, picking up again in another part of the world with people trying to ascertain his ultimate fate. It’s a real hoot to see awe-inspired fans and musicians talk about him and then get to meet him, talk to him, and see him perform. Best of all for American audiences is that because Rodriguez is not known, we get to watch as objective observers. The documentary is devoid of any personal feelings we might bring to a documentary on The Beatles, for example. So the film becomes a portrait of fandom and adoration.

It’s actually not that hard to understand why his records didn’t sell in this country. His music is good, and to my nearly middle-aged ears that now long for more grown up sounding music with meaningful lyrics, it sounds like something I might enjoy listening to. But the more songs you hear on the soundtrack and the more they repeat the best two or three, the more you realize his music’s a little flat and not all the surprising or interesting, especially when you consider he was a folk music-writing Bob Dylan retread a decade after Dylan had already become hugely popular. Add to that a Hispanic name on the album cover, which was likely to lead people to believe it was Latin-influenced music (there is no Latin influence anywhere in his music). Maybe if, like Ritchie Valens’ producer in the late 50’s, they had given him an Anglo-sounding pseudonym, he might have sold more records. Sad as that may seem to us, a more enlightened 21st century audience, it is a cold fact if you’re coming from reality.

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