Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

I had another go at my occasional hobby of organising DIY double-bills for myself today. On one level the two films concerned have virtually nothing in common, but then again I could happily describe the day’s festivities under the banner ‘Sugar/Candy’ without the slightest dishonesty. And they are both exceptionally rewarding films to watch, which is surely the most important thing.

They say that the mark of a great documentary is that it takes a subject you previously knew nothing about, and which honestly doesn’t sound that prepossessing, and makes it riveting in its own right. Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man is something quite different and almost wholly surprising.

The film opens with a blank screen over which a song begins to play, quickly joined by the picture of a coastal highway. The song is called ‘Sugar Man’, and I had never heard it before – and despite my musical nous only extending to the uke, it was immediately obvious that the singer knew his business. Talking about the song in the movie is Steve ‘Sugar’ Segerman, who got his nickname from the song. Sugar describes how he first came across the singer of the song, Rodriguez, the impact his music had, and the sadness he felt upon hearing of the bizarre, horrible nature of Rodriguez’s death: immolating himself on stage.

By this point most people will be wondering ‘Who the hell was this Rodriguez character?’ – I certainly was. The film obligingly fills us in: Rodriguez was a singer-songwriter based in Detroit in the late 60s, turning out highly accomplished pop-folk protest songs. A buzz collected around him and he recorded an album, Cold Fact, with some distinguished producers. It did not achieve the expected success, and so moved on to produce a second record, Coming from Reality. But this did not sell either, and as a result Rodriguez was dropped by the label and vanished back into the silence of obscurity.

A common enough story, as many failed musicians whose names you wouldn’t recognise could confirm. But the film is only just getting started. A copy of Cold Fact found its way to South Africa in the early Seventies, where it rapidly developed a devoted following amongst liberal white Afrikaaners responding to its anti-establishment tone. Perhaps the isolated nature of South Africa at this point in history is responsible, but – for whatever reason – an album which barely registered in the American or European charts became a massive hit in this part of the world. Rodriguez was as popular as the Beatles, and more popular than Elvis or the Rolling Stones, and is credited by South African musicians as having a huge influence on the cultural resistance to the apartheid regime.

And yet, also due to the nature of the world at this time, Rodriguez’s legions of fans knew virtually nothing about him beyond his name and a few clues scattered through the records. Various grim rumours went into circulation about the exact details of his death, but no-one was able to find out for certain. It was against this background that two fans, Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, set out to finally discover what had happened to their hero…

At this point I must stop, though it pains me to do so. Searching for Sugar Man has been structured in accordance with the presumption that this story will come as a total surprise to you, and as a result it will lose much of its impact if I go shooting my mouth off and spoiling the ending. For this reason I would recommend not doing anything like Googling Rodriguez or YouTubing his songs before seeing the film, should you be planning to. (I have to say that the trailer for this film spoils the ending quite spectacularly, so avoid that as well!) Suffice to say that the story related by the rest of the film is utterly astonishing, enormously emotional, and completely engrossing. This is one of the best and most remarkable films I’ve seen this year, and that’s really all you need to know.

Oh, well, if you insist… at the top I said that a good documentary turns an unlikely subject into a great story – but in this case the story itself is so incredible that it would take a complete oaf to muck up a film about it. Malik Bendjelloul is not that oaf and he does the tale full justice. This isn’t just a great documentary but a great movie, with a definite eye for appropriate cinematic flourishes and a real sense of an unfolding narrative.

However, one could easily argue that Bendjelloul has got a little carried away on this score, and the way the film is put together is actually a bit disingenuous, actively misleading the audience and withholding pertinent facts about Rodriguez – all in order to achieve its moments of shock and emotion later on. An interview with the rather chippy former owner of Rodriguez’s record label is particularly guilty of this, but this is sort of forgiveable given it’s one of the most telling sequences in the film: the man practically weeps recalling the fate of an artist he seems to have genuine affection for, then abruptly clams up and becomes aggressive when the issue of what happened to Rodriguez’s massive South African royalties is raised.

I suppose it boils down to whether you want to see a great piece of journalism or a great movie; Bendjelloul has opted for the later and achieved his goal with some style. If this movie did mislead me, it did so with such confidence and style that I’m more than willing to forgive it. Whether the director would be able to make an equally engrossing film about less-amazing subject matter – because there can’t be too many stories like this one floating around in obscurity – I don’t know. But Searching for Sugar Man is a brilliant achievement and a terrific film.

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