January 20, 2013

Searching for Substance in Sugar Man

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After leaving the theater after a showing of Searching for Sugar Man, I was stopped at a red light when I looked to the right and heard a fellow driver playing “Jane S. Piddy” off of Rodriguez’s 1970 album Cold Fact. The next day, when I went to pick up the album, I was told I’d have to wait to purchase the album as it had been cleared from shelves by a herd of customers who had, presumably, just seen the same documentary. After a shipment of records, I was finally able to get my copies (which I’ve shared with friends), but I can tell you that the decision to buy the CD was just one of the few good outcomes of sitting through the 86-minute film by Malik Bendjelloul.

Bendjelloul’s documentary focuses on a search for the psych-folk musician-poet Sixto Rodriguez, who was reported to have committed suicide mid-concert after a mysterious and turbulent music career. Rodriguez’s records gained enormous commercial success while kick-starting anti-establishment fervor in South Africa, but flopped in his home country, the United States. In the repressed African nation, he sold half a million records, while in America he sold next to nothing. Why this disparity occurred is never fully answered, but the documentary expends plenty of energy explaining how Rodriguez did not want fame and money and exhausted the inescapable comparison to the similarly elusive Bob Dylan. The two musicians share similarities in location (both midwesterners), sound, social message and an almost messianic status amongst their fan base, but Rodriguez was so uncomfortable with money and success that he makes the fame-fleeting Dylan look opportunistic.

Rodriguez’s aversion to attention clearly stifled his career, and just as clearly stifles this movie. The documentary takes a Citizen Kane-like approach to the search, following two journalists who want to find out more about the ostensibly dead Rodriguez as they visit production companies and acquaintances, seeking to connect the dots to Rodriguez’s core. This mystery-documentary set-up is flawed as the two searchers have a story far less interesting than Rodriguez’s and the one move that begets surprise (the discovery that Rodriguez is alive and not so well off in Michigan) is revealed by the film’s trailer which features present day footage of Rodriguez walking through snow covered slums of Detroit. It appears as if Rodriguez was content without the attention and happy to be underrated, realizing Emerson’s words, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Instead, the directors track Rodriguez down so that he can appear in the film. The interviews with Rodriguez, which occur two-thirds into the film (after the beginning with the rather boring journalists), do not reward the slow beginning and are stymied by Rodriguez’s reservations. Instead of answering why he dropped out of the music industry, he keeps his enigmatic shades on and steers away from the questions.

What is more rewarding, however, is the coverage of a “Back from the Dead Concert” staged in South Africa in March 1998 after the discovery that Rodriguez was still alive. The concert was an enormous success, sold out and resurrected the man (in South Africa at least) who had been working construction jobs and living in near seclusion in Detroit. In fact, take it as a rule of thumb that the portions of the film that take place in South Africa are worthwhile, whereas the rest is flyover footage. Particularly interesting sections discuss the difficulty of raising dissent in South Africa, as his lyrics (“I wonder how many times have you had sex?”) challenged a puritanical and tyrannical system, organized around preserving the reactionary apartheid economic complex. His music was so controversial that conservative thugs descended into record stores to scratch his records, rendering the lyrics inaudible. However opposed to his success the South African government was, it is there, in the confused, Western nation miles away from the rest of the Western world where he achieved his just praise — that is, until now.

From my experience waiting at a stoplight next to a fellow Rodriguez listener and my difficulty in obtaining his record, I’ve gathered that the man is experiencing somewhat of a Renaissance and our nostalgia-infatuated generation is subsidizing it. This is an incredible success. The man is a romantic, a subversive, a poet and criminally underappreciated. The new swarm of praise is, of course, due to the movie, but the movie should not be the subject of praise itself. In short: Buy his CDs, skip the film.


Original Author: Henry Staley