Tuesday, July 17, 2012

'Searching for Sugar Man' (2012) directed by Malik Bendjelloul, 15th July 2012

It’s got to be a good sign when you feel genuine suspense and excitement during a documentary.  ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ tells a fascinating, almost unbelievable story with several unexpected twists and turns (to the point where I’d recommend not reading up on it before seeing the film, this review is spoiler free though).  The subject is an American singer/songwriter called Rodriguez who recorded two albums in 1970 and 1971, both of which were enormous flops.  Soon after the release and failure of his second album he dropped off the radar.  Word was that after a disastrous concert he’d doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on stage (described as “the most gruesome suicide in rock history”).  But meanwhile, purely by chance, his album ‘Cold Fact’ began to be played and pick up fans in South Africa.  It eventually became part of the soundtrack of disaffected youth during the  rule of the apartheid government.  The film tell us that every house with a record collection had three albums: ‘The Beatles – Abbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Rodriguez – Cold Fact’.  We're told that Rodriguez is “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa.  This documentary lays out the story of the search for Rodriguez, an effort to find out what happened to this mysterious man.

Very quickly you realise that this is going to be particularly beautiful film.  We open with swooping helicopter shots of the South African coastline, as Rodriguez’s song ‘Sugar Man’ plays over the soundtrack.  The film-makers seem at pains to establish the ‘world’ that the events take in, what the past or the present ‘feels’ like.  This philosophy extends to the locations, times and weather they interview their subjects in.  A notable example is a contemporary of Rodriguez being interviewed on the snowy streets of Detroit at night, he’s wrapped up but still shivering as he tells his story.  This sense of place is important and appropriate – most of the songs Rodriguez sings are about the political treatment and exploitation of the dispossessed inner city poor.

The film-makers define their world through careful shot and palette control.  The South African scenes are bathed in a warm orange light, whereas the Detroit scenes are cold and snowy, and tend to be shown as monochrome.   All of the urban photography is brilliantly realised – a favourite sequence of mine was showing us rising up above a city in a shot that I assume was captured from a glass fronted lift.  ModernSouth Africa tends to be shown in a relatively positive light, with sunny shots of the modern city, beaches and record shops whereas in contrast Detroit is shown more as an example of urban decay.  There are frequent tracking shots taken from moving cars, showing row after row of boarded up shops, and desperate people struggling through the snow.  If you’re trying to showcase the desperation and abandonment of a man’s failing music career, then you could hardly pick a more apt backdrop.  There is also excellent use of archive footage which captures the grimy and grubby feel of 70s Detroit and later the oppressive fascism of the apartheid South African state.

In the absence of much archive footage of their subject the film uses several animated sequences to show key moments in the story, or serving as ersatz music videos for Rodriguez’ songs.  These seem to capture the man’s personality and philosophy in a direct way.  We see him loping along a street, guitar on his back – a distillation of the urban troubadour. In one later sequence he stands in silhouette, shifting nervously in front of a sunset - an impressive example of using body language to inform the audience of the humbleness of the man.  In the absence of early 70s video of Rodriguez in his heyday this seems like most artistic way to capture his personality, and visually they’re absolutely beautiful.

It is immediately apparent that Rodriguez’s music is great.  We open to the strains of ‘Sugar Man’, and the film is soundtracked by various songs of his throughout.  The film wouldn’t work at all if the audience didn’t like the man’s music, and the brilliance of it is repeatedly talked up by the various interview subjects.  There is a particularly nice sequence where we are played what a record company executive describes as “the saddest song he’s ever heard”, and explains how the depressing events of it seem to have functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy for Rodriguez.  Everyone seems very confused as to why his records flopped, the big-name producers who worked with him say that he was like nothing they’d seen before.  A few people even get tears in their eyes when talking about him – an impressive feat considering they only worked with him briefly in the early 70s.

One of the mistakes that it’s easy for documentary film-makers to make is to over-egg the pudding.  By this I mean that they take a compelling and worthy subject that they’re enthusiastic about, but don’t seem quite convinced that the audience will be as interested as them without adding a bit of hyperbole.  To this end, the film paints Rodriguez as the epitome of the troubled, overlooked genius and in my opinion goes a little too far in overstating his importance in the world of music.  For example, we’re told at one point that Rodriguez was a better songwriter than Bob Dylan.  Rodriguez is a good songwriter, a great one even, but frankly he’s no Bob Dylan. 

Rather more problematically, the film begins to paint Rodriguez as a driving force behind the abolition of apartheid.  We are shown a progression of South African artists influenced by ‘Cold Fact’, who explain that the anti-establishment point of view expressed on the album was entirely novel and gave them the impetus to begin to perform music opposed to apartheid even under threat of imprisonment.  The apartheid history of South Africa is shown through documentary footage of demonstrations, and clashes with the army and police, to a soundtrack of Rodriguez.  It seems plausible enough that this music provided a soundtrack to the burgeoning anti-apartheid movement, but it seems a bit of stretch to paint it as a primary motivator.  Notable by their relative absence during these retrospective sequences are black South Africans.   There’s a scene set after the end of apartheid where the crowd seems entirely monochrome, a hall containing thousands of Rodriguez fans and not one black face among them.

It’s a bit of a shame that the film-makers felt the need the overstate the importance of their subject, as the story of Rodriguez is absolutely fascinating in its own right, and the more we learn about his philosophy and life, the more we come to respect him.  He begins the film as a man of mystery, shown in moody high-contrast black and white photos, his eyes constantly masked by sunglasses.  As we progress through the film, the icon is slowly humanised.  We learn about his past and eventually what happened to him.  I felt a sense of engrossment from the audience during the film, and there were gasps and chuckles of disbelief, and nervous laughs as the story wound its way to a close.  The film is incredibly emotionally engaging for a documentary, reminding me of ‘Man on Wire’ (I later found out that these two films share a producer). 

This film speaks to a common desire in all of us.  In Rodriguez’s story we see a man who poured his heart and soul into his art, only to find his efforts completely ignored.  His records regarded as flops, his music career a total dud, yet somewhere out there, unbeknownst to him he was a superstar.  It’s the kind of warm, fuzzy feeling that gets you through the night; that someone, somewhere understands you completely and while you may toil unloved and unappreciated, you’ll eventually find your place in the spotlight.

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1 Responses to “'Searching for Sugar Man' (2012) directed by Malik Bendjelloul, 15th July 2012”

kath byron said...
December 31, 2012 at 7:22 AM

Good review except for the fact that you misunderstood a key point. The filmakers were trying to show the impact his music had on white South Africans, who were isolated, misinformed and previously unaware of the concept of protest. He helped to awaken their conscience and inspired them to protest, which particuarly amongst Afriikaans youth was unheard of. In a society that was as deeply segregated as ours his impact was amongst the white population and not the black population, that's the story. The film is not trying to credit the downfall of apartheid to him but emphasise the influence he had on white people who were starting to oppose apartheid. Therefore not surprising that there would be no black people in the audience at a later concert. Over a period of 20 years his music was played at parties and in homes of white people, bearing in mind that it was illegal to socialise with different colurs during apartheid.

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