Saturday, March 30, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

There are spoilers for the film here.

Searching for Sugar Man, as its title implies, is structured as a mystery.  Its title figure, Sixto Rodriguez, released two albums on a small record label in the United States in the early-70's.  Neither record sold particularly well, and Rodriguez the musician disappeared into obscurity.  This is a fairly common story in the record industry, where only the barest handful of people manage to sell enough records to make a living at it, but what sets Rodriguez apart is that, for reasons that are not entirely clear (the movie attempts to grapple with this question, but its answers are somewhat cliche), his music hit a chord with white South Africans in the 70's and 80's, people who considered themselves foes of the apartheid regime in that country.  Rodriguez became, without ever knowing it, a superstar in South Africa, a musician whose records occupy the same real estate with, according to one person in the film, the Beatles' Abbey Road and Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The mystery that the first half of Malik Bendjelloul's film is built around is, what happened to Rodriguez?  In the pre-internet era, details of his life were difficult to find, especially for residents of a country as politically isolated as apartheid-era South Africa was, and rumors that he had killed himself in some gruesome way were the most common story passed around among his fans.  A couple of those fans took it upon themselves in the 90's, sparked by the re-release of his albums on CD, to find out the true story, and their search eventually yielded the man himself, alive and well and living a working-class life in Detroit.

The second half of the film fills in the details of Rodriguez' life after his brief shot at being a big-time musician, and spends a good deal of time building up to, and showing the footage from, Rodriguez' triumphant 1998 tour of South Africa, the first time his fans in that country had gotten a chance to see him in person.  It is a show-stopping moment, and it is made possible by Rodriguez himself, a man of copious amounts of humility and grace about the circumstances of his life, the near-miss of stardom and the fact that he makes ends meet by doing manual labor in one of the hardest cities in America.  Rodriguez resists introspection about his place in the world (he is an awkward interview subject, too careful and measured to provide concrete answers), but his humanity shines through the screen anyway.

Rodriguez' music populates the film - it's folky, with just the barest hint of Latin inflection.  He gets compared to Bob Dylan constantly, not without reason, and occasionally he comes up with a turn of phrase that really makes you take notice.  There's a bit of saminess to the music; he likes to come up with a question or phrase and repeat it in different iterations.  But at its best, his music absolutely could have played on AOR stations in the 70's.  It was probably a longshot in any case - the record label he is signed to was too small to provide any real publicity muscle (the biggest artist on the label was Bill Withers, and his albums also somewhat undersold) but the film at least implies that part of the problem was just how conspicuously Hispanic Rodriguez is.  His music is distinctly in the white folk tradition, acoustic guitars and political messages, and it's not far-fetched to imagine the label had trouble figuring out how to sell him to audiences.  The film also strongly implies that the head of his label, a man named Clarence Avant, pocketed the royalties that he should have been receiving from his South African album sales, but it doesn't follow the thread beyond asking Avant about it (who is extremely cagey about the subject, and comes off like the slimy record executive one imagines them to be.)

The second half of the film is dominated, not so much by Rodriguez himself as by his three daughters.  They are the narrators of his story, talking about his blue collar life as a manual laborer, about his quixotic 1989 campaign for Detroit city council (the city couldn't even manage to spell his name right on the ballot) and, above all, about how he worked hard to instill a love of the arts in them.  It's never clear what the family situation between them, their mother and Rodriguez is, but what comes across on the screen is just what a decent father he was to the three of them, and how much they appreciate what he was able to give them - not money, but knowledge, and passion, and the sense that lacking material things didn't mean that the culture in and around the city was closed off to them.

Bendjelloul engages in a bit of fudging to make the narrative work.  In the mid-70's, Rodriguez' records sold well enough in Australia for him to tour the country in 1979, and again in 1981.  Bendjelloul doesn't mention this fact, so that the 1998 concert in South Africa seems like Rodriguez' triumphant return to music after having walked away from the business in the early-70's.  It's one of those omissions that makes sense in terms of the story the filmmaker is trying to tell, but it's at least worth noting that the story told here doesn't quite match the reality of the facts on the ground.  Rodriguez is still a compelling enough figure, and his story so fascinating anyway, that it didn't matter to me.  There are so many stories that intertwine within the life of Rodriguez - the shady details of the music business, apartheid-era South Africa, the collapse of the working class (particularly in Detroit), but most of all the story of Rodriguez is one of a father and his daughters, about  how a man with very little can still give his girls so much.  A-

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