Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Malik Bendjelloul's SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN: most important film of the year so far

That truth can be stranger -- more powerful and more wonderful -- than fiction gets a good going over (the best I've seen in a long time) with the documentary SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN from Scandinavian filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul. This movie, ostensibly about the search for what really became of a folk-rock singer from the 1960s/70s who is said to have committed suicide by burning himself to death in front of a live audience, raises all kinds of and so many interesting questions, more than it could possibly answer. Yet you can't watch the film without having these questions pop up, together with their answers, some of which the documentary provides, others that you yourself will piece together, even as you heart soars and your eyes well up and then rather copiously spill over. As mystery, history, social commentary and more, this is one eye-opening, mind-expanding, spellbinding film.

The filmmaker, Mr. Bendjelloul (shown at left) begins with a pleasant but unknown song on the soundtrack, as we drive along a beautiful, mountainous coastal highway in present-day South Africa and learn a bit about this fellow named Rodriguez. Then it's back to 1960s Detroit and the club scene there, as some guys who were part of the music industry back then talk about their discovery of this song-writer/singer/guitarist, shown below, who liked to stay in the shadows and always wore dark glasses.

These industry people were certain they had found a performer as good, important and original in his way as was Dylan. "Nobody else but Dylan was doing anything this good," notes one of them. (In this section, Benjelloul offers his own animated version of 60s Detroit, one of several times in which animation is used most interes-tingly.) In any case, these music people persuade Rodriguez to make a album of his material, which he does. It flops. Nobody hears it (outside of a few music industry professionals), so nobody buys it. Finito. One of those pros, below, thinks it's good enough to warrant a second album, so he produces one. (We hear from him now, retired, and living in Palm Springs.)

Soon after, in South Africa, during the height and heartlessness of Apartheid, those albums make their way to the southern tip of the dark continent, where, bootlegged, they become the byword for disaffected youth of South Africa and, in their own way, weapons against Apartheid.

From here, this marvelous story grows richer and deeper, as a few musicians and/or musicologists (above and below) determine to discover just what happened to Rodriguez. That suicide-by-fire story is crap, we're told. No, he pulled out a gun on stage and shot himself. These people pour over the man's lyrics to find clues (the city of Dearborn is one such), and when they hit a dead end, they just try again. "To a detective, " one tell us, "an obstacle is an inspiration!"

What they find is the occasion for all that joy and those tears, as well as for more of the ideas and questions that keep cropping up. The word "hero" is never mentioned, I believe, but if Rodriguez is not a true American hero, then there is no such thing. Of course he himself would never use the word nor admit to this. But given what we learn, there is plenty of reason to honor someone like him rather than the usual suspects (politicians of any stripe or, god help us, the Donald Trumps of the world).

We also learn how true art survives and grows, and about how little we really knew of South Africa under Apartheid -- even given Lionel Rogosin's attempt with Come Back Africa. And why didn't those two albums succeed here on their home ground? This implicates not only consumers who barely got word of the works but our revered guardians of culture -- the critics -- as well as all those who might have given the albums radio play. What? Was there not enough payola circulating to make it worth anyone's time and effort.

Oh, yes: And what happened to the money from the sales of all those albums in South Africa? Someone made a lot of lucre, and it wasn't Rodriguez. As I say, there are questions here aplenty, but it is to the movie-maker's credit that he allows them all to surface without feeling hell-bent to answer each.  Searching for Sugar Man will have you considering so much about life in America (and elsewhere), about the uses of art and performance, about work and the work ethic, about family and history and what is worth honoring in this world of ours that I think you simply must see it.

From Sony Pictures Classics -- the distributor that often has the lock on Best Foreign Film; this year it might have the Best Documentary, as well -- and running just 85 minutes, Searching for Sugar Man hits theaters in New York (the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center) and Los Angeles (The Landmark) this Friday, July 27. It'll be opening around the country starting next week and over the coming months. Click here to see all the currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters.

No comments: