Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: "Searching for Sugar Man"

In the earlier 1970's in South Africa, the apartheid regime was in its height of power.  Suspected anti-apartheid citizens were watched, media was controlled and racism (or racialism as it was often referred to) was the norm.  The story goes, a young woman arrives in South Africa from the United States to meet her boyfriend (or so the story goes) and with her, she caries an album called "Cold Fact" by a little known American artist called Rodriguez.  The boyfriend and his friends start taping copies and the album begins to spread like wildfire, revolutionary wildfire....

Searching for Sugar Man, the 2013 Academy Award winning documentary from Swedish child actor turned documentarian Malik Bendjelloul, tells the story of the unlikely hero of a musical revolution Sixto Rodriguez (sometimes also known as Jesus or simply Rodriguez).  From humble beginnings as the sixth child of a working class Mexican/Native-European family, to a short lived career as a solo musician in Detroit, Rodriguez was heralded as a sort of working-man's poet by many who worked on his albums.  With two albums released by Sussex Records (owned by Motown before it folded in 1975), Rodriguez' career never took off in his home country and he was dropped from his label shortly before its dissolution.  However this is not the story that makes the film so fascinating.  It is his absolute and utter domination in the South African market (even while his albums were banned from the airwaves) that makes this story so fascinating.  All the while, he had no idea.  And the South Africans, thought he was dead, the centre of a fantastical onstage suicide which was committed differently depending on who you spoke to.

While the story itself is so far fetched it's hard to believe, it still remains incredibly fascinating and the director manages to tell the tale with surprising finesse.  Set to the sound of Rodriguez' most popular songs, the film begins with a contemplative picture of Detroit, Rodriguez from those around him and South Africa.  The beginning of the film is perhaps some of the most beautiful and surprisingly calming city scenes in recent memory.  As the film continues and we begin to speak to more of the people around Rodriguez and around the South African music industry, the film starts to list a little towards naivete.  Rodriguez' youngest daughter in particular is somewhat disingenuous in the way that she describes their surprise at her father's new found fame, even mentioning that when a limo showed up for them they started to trudge around it because, "it couldn't possibly be for us."  Right.   However Rodriguez himself and the fantastical nature of the story make up for the odd disingenuous comment here or there and ultimately the film is an interesting portrait of a man who was, unbeknownst to him, a celebrity in another land.

 As documentaries go this one is not particularly hard hitting, nor does it need to be as the essential message is one of the endurance of the human spirit and the simplicity and connection that music can bring to ones life.  Now that I've seen it may not know everything about Sixto Rodriguez, there may be skeletons in his closet I'm unaware of but the film has told me all I need to know to enjoy the fairy tale, and that's the point.  It's the fantasy of waking up one day to find that you're a rock star, but it actually happened to a quiet man, who lives in Detroit and works in construction.  He has three daughters, and a philosphy degree, and every so often, he goes overseas and plays huge rock shows.  And that's alright by him.

Worth checking out.  My rating?  3 stars out of 4.

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