Saturday, September 29, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man

SE/GB © 2012 Canfield Pictures / Documentary Company. P: Simon Chinn. D+SC+ED: Malik Bendjelloul. DP: Camilla Skagerström - post-production: The Chimney Pot. AN: Filmtecknarna - d: Arvid Steen. VFX: Olle Petersson. M: Rodriguez (songs beyond the jump break). S: Per Nyström. Featuring:  Rodriguez (see others beyond the jump break). Loc: Detroit, Cape Town. 86 min. Source: NonStop Entertainment. Viewed at Bio Rex, Helsinki (Helsinki Film Festival), 29 September 2012.

An amazing documentary on a major American singer-songwriter, Rodriguez, who has remained unknown for decades except in South Africa.

Malik Bendjelloul has reconstructed the detective work needed to track down the mystery man who did not know that he was as big as Elvis in South Africa during its years of international isolation. His songs meant a lot for the anti-establishment movement in that country.

The basic drive in Malik Bendjelloul's movie is a passion for the songs of Rodriguez, his poetry and his art as a songwriter and singer. I had not known about Rodriguez before, and it was a thrill to discover his songs. As a lyricist he is among the greatest songwriters, and, based in Detroit the Motor Town, he managed to get fine Motown-style arrangements to his records.    

This is a story of a big rip-off: somebody played a deeply unfair game. The South African success of Rodriguez lasted for decades, but it was never reported to the artist who believed he was a failure. Rodriguez was also startlingly indifferent to the symbols of success.

The most engrossing aspect of the tale is that of the forgotten artist, still in full command of his talent, finally discovering that he has a big audience who loves him for the right reasons.

The visual quality of the new footage, mostly talking heads, is fine, and the rest of the movie has understandably a compilation quality. There is no high quality concert footage.

ROUGH NOTES: Cape Town - I: Stephen Segerman - no information was found, we thought he had committed suicide - Detroit, 1968 - I: Dennis Coffey - compilation quality - I: Mike Theodore - he was playing and singing with his back turned - only Dylan wrote that well - ♪ Crucify Your Mind (1970) - fine Motown style arrangement - animation inserts - I: Dan DiMaggio - he was like a homeless person, a drifter, as if he was drifting from shelter to shelter - Detroit is tough - intercity poet - death motif - I: Jeremy Perretti - there was a model for sugar man, perhaps a heroin dealer - ♪ Sugar Man (1970) - Palm Springs (CA) - I: Steve Rowland - the most memorable artist, a wise man, a prophet - Coming from Reality album - ♪ Cause (1971) - we expected big things - "I lost my job two weeks before Christmas" - ♪ I Wonder - I: Stephen Segerman - I: William Möller - everything was restricted - LP: Cold Fact - I Wonder was the big song - Cold Fact was one of the greats - for the anti-establishment - it's ok to protest - I: Craig Bartholomew-Strydow - every revolution needs an anthem - in South Africa, it was Cold Fact - ♪ The Establishment Blues - a closed door situation - a very isolated society - Afrikaans music revolution - Voëlry movement - much influenced by Rodriguez - archive of censored material - I: Lisa Assmann - record track scratched - not to be played on the air - I: Steve M. Harris - ♪ Can't Get Away - nobody could buy Rodriguez in America - Sixto Rodriguez, Jesus Rodriguez - drawn inserts, limited animation inserts - in Cape Town we believed in the suicide story - where does a dead man's money go? - when inquiries were made, telephone numbers were changed - there were obstacles - I smelled a dirty money story - I: Robbie Mann - royalties: to A&M Records - royalties: to Sussex Records, Clarence Avant - in South Africa much bigger than The Rolling Stones - Clarence Avant had been the head of Motown - there were a lot of closed doors - I: Clarence Avant - Rodriguez was in the top five - but that name didn't register - Latin music didn't register - didn't sell here - in California, he turned his back to the audience - Rodriguez never happened - I'm out of business - who would give a shit about that? I wouldn't - we were listening to the lyrics to track down the places - Dearborn: a part of Detroit, home of Motown - August 1997 - I: Mike Theodore - Sixto Rodriguez is alive and kicking in Detroit - three year search of a dead singer - contact through a website - I: Eva Rodriguez - the phone rang at 1 a.m., my wife picked up the receiver: "it's him" - ♪ Sandrevan Lullaby (1971) - [some 53 minutes into the movie] - I: Rodriguez - always black shades - there had been no contact from South Africa - it was nice to know he was a superstar - did he continue making albums? - no, instead in construction work, demolition, renovation, restoration of buildings - keeps the blood circulating - I love to play the guitar - I go to shows - ♪ Street Boy (1971) - Rodriguez walking in the snow - careful on the slippery sidewalks - well covered in black - he read a lot - into politics - protest - working class life - I: Regan Rodriquez - a lot of experience - took it seriously - I: Rick Emmerson - dirty work - dressed in tuxedo - the artist is the pioneer - he knew there was something more - he tried to ride for mayor in Detroit - Elect Rodriguez bumper sticker - roots in Mexico, Europe, Native American - working class, blue collar - 26 homes during childhood - ♪ A Most Distinguished Song (1971) - we were poor, our dreams were big, our soul rich - a harder worker than many others - I: Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy - dad gave us a lot of exposure in the arts: libraries, galleries - ♪ Lifestyles (1971) - Rodriguez walks in the snow - I played a lot of bars - a gig in a place called The Sewer - in the early years,  a lot of work - in South Africa, more popular than Elvis - I: Rian Malan - 2 March, 1998 - animation - another world, a Rodriguez on every lamppost - opening band for Rodriguez - it turns out he doesn't have a band - is it really Rodriguez? - too much grounded, not with his head in the clouds - it was like Elvis rising from the dead - 6 March, 1998 - bad video footage from the comeback concert - ♪ I Wonder live in South Africa - it was from being an outcast to being who he really was - bewildered? no, absolute tranquillity - like he had arrived to the place he had always been looking for - bliss - happiness - dreams - higher forces - recognized - his talent visible to the world - that sort of magic - I tried to ask whether he had been cripplingly shy - he preserved his mystery - it was too strange to be true - those were days of miracles and wonders - six sold out concerts in South Africa in 1998 - South Africa made me feel more than a prince - tattoo of Cold Fact - Rodriguez on tv - people didn't believe this in Detroit - I: Jeremy Ferretti, bricklayer - album: he couldn't even get me one - he was living a very, very, very modest life - hard to make ends meet - rich, not materially - what had been going on: bootlegs? piracy? perhaps other people are rich? - ♪ I'll Slip Away (1973, unpublished) - you can keep all your symbols of success - Rodriguez has now a South African grandson - Rodriguez has not changed - took all that torment, agony like the silkworm - created something beautiful, transcendent, eternal - he gave you Sugar Man - have you done that? - has returned four times to South Africa - 30 concerts - gave away most of the money to family and friends - still lives in the same house after 40 years.

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