Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Movie Review: Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man
Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul.

Rordriguez was a very gifted singer/songwriter who released two albums in the early 1970s, and was never heard from again. Or more accurately, even when he released those albums, he wasn’t heard from. He got some good reviews, but his albums didn’t sell, and so he was dropped from his label, and forgotten, even by the people who liked his music. Everyone who worked with him remembered him though – and loved him. They have nothing but kind words to say about him, and they all rank him among the most talented musicians they ever worked with.

But a strange thing happens – somehow, Rodriguez became huge in South Africa. How his album even got there is not known – an old story says that an American girl came to visit her South African boyfriend with a copy of the album, and everyone loved it, and starting bootlegging in. All through the 1970s and 1980s, under Apartheid, Rodriguez’s two albums were in constant circulation – and inspired anti-Apartheid musicians across the country. His albums were censored by the government, who quite literally scratched the vinyl albums, so the tracks they didn’t want played on the radio could not be played. Rodriguez became a legend in South Africa – bigger than Elvis. He sold hundreds of thousands of records. Part of the reason he became so big is because no one knew anything about him. There were no real linear notes on the album, and strangely the vinyl record lists three different names – the cover identifies him only as Rodriguez, the record itself identifies him as Sixto Rodriguez, and the songwriting credits list him as Jesus Rodriguez. Somehow a story circulates that the reason he never made a third album is because he set himself on fire on stage, killing himself. Or he shot himself on stage. No one knows for sure, but they can all agree is this: Rodriguez is dead.

In the late 1990s, two South Africans set about trying to figure out how Rodriguez really is. They go to his South African record companies. Surely they’ll know – after all, they have to be sending royalties somewhere. And they did, although that trail turns out to be a dead end because the person they are paying royalties to isn’t Rodriguez, but his old record company – and they sure aren’t passing them along anywhere. So then they do a strange thing – they start trying to figure out where Rodriguez is from by looking at the lyrics to the songs themselves. San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam – all dead ends. Then they notice he mentions a place called Dearborn, and the path becomes clearer. What they find will astonish everyone.

I won’t reveal what happens next, because if you are lucky enough not to know this story already, then you deserve to find out for yourself when you watch this remarkable documentary. And remarkable it certainly is. If a screenwriter came up with this story, it would never get made, because no one would believe it. It is the type of story that is made for documentary, because if you didn’t hear it from the people who lived it, you would think it had to be made up. Another documentary this year was like that – The Imposter – but that was a much darker story, that ends as it begins with an enigma. I prefer Searching for Sugar Man which is one of the most inspirational films of the year. I often roll my eyes when I see movies that try to inspire me – I’m a cynic at heart. But I cannot help being won over by a story like the one Searching for Sugar Man tells. We can all learn a lot from Searching for Sugar Man – and the mystery man at its core.

Note: The only real complaint I have about Searching for Sugar Man is the same complaint I have about many movies about musicians – we never get to hear a song from beginning to end during the movie. We hear parts of a lot of Rodriguez’s songs – and what I heard makes me want to hear more, as it is my type of music, but I wonder why documentary filmmakers can never settle down long enough to let a whole song play beginning to end. Oh well, I seem to be the only one bothered by this, but it’s a pet peeve of mine. I want to hear the songs!

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