Saturday, July 20, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

d. Malik Bendjelloul, 2012 - Netflix

The "unknown musicians getting their due" is fast developing into a familiar, if not quite yet formulaic, subgenre of documentary.  It's a subgenre that has legs, however, as there's a lot of great music that goes unnoticed.  Today those overlooked gems are a result of the sheer glut of music being released, itself resulting from the ease of access to both recording and distribution resources.  Prior to the "digital age" -- which was only a dozen years back but feels like an eternity ago -- the channels for production and distribution were further out of reach (at the very least, far more costly) to the average hungry troubadour.  Step even further back to the 1960's and 70's, where there wasn't really even any independent distribution system, where the major labels and radio industry controlled what got released and what music was heard, and if you weren't producing hits, you weren't anything.

Such was the case with Sixto Rodriguez, an urban folk singer from Detroit who wowed producers at random live appearances around town in the late-60's and quickly found himself with a recording contract.  Unfortunately, after two widely ignored records failed to gain any domestic traction, Rodriguez disappeared into civilian life, unaware that he had reached infamy in South Africa.  What the distribution model at the time always failed to take into account was bootlegging, and from one or two copies of the records, hundreds of thousands, eventually millions of South Africans found a voice that echoed their disenfranchisement.

This documentary starts in Cape Town, with a music aficionado discussing his unending fascination with this cult figure Rodriguez, who, despite being easily in the top 3 of the all-time favourite/famous recording artists in South Africa, remained an utterly mysterious and unknown figure.  With no press material, no documented interviews, no magazine articles of any importance, Rodriguez's legend grew, as did the myths surrounding his death.  Director Malik Bendjelloul takes us through a journey of discovery, to Detroit to explore the history of this otherwise unknown folk music hero, and how he came to be such a critical figure in South Africa's musical landscape.

If you've heard anything about the Oscar-winning film, or watched the awards ceremony last year, then you've already had the film's great surprise spoiled; the revelation that Rodriguez is still alive in Detroit, living a pauper's life, having lived the life of a local activist while raising his children, working construction and verging on destitution, all while somewhere in South Africa, someone has made millions off the hundreds of thousands of records and CD recordings sold.  It's a twist that, even if spoiled, does not diminish the impact of the story.  Rodriguez seems a quiet, largely solitary man, humble and grateful for the life he's led.  His music is raw and forthright, and he seems to have continued to live the life he sang about 40 years ago.  His producers from long ago were heartbroken by his lack of success in America, and wonder, at least on camera, why he didn't hit the same heights as Dylan.  The simple answer being he clouded nothing in his songs, there was no shielding his message in metaphors.  His music was an exposed nerve that could have easily connected with the social movements of the time, but there was no way, in that era, that music that primal was going to achieve airplay.  But in the context of South Africa, Rodriguez is sandwiched between the Beatles and Rolling Stones as one of the all time greats, and the film's exploration of his overseas infamy, moreover his reaction to it, is what makes it remarkable and rewarding.

It's a beautiful documentary that earned all its hype, and lives up to it.