Friday, October 19, 2012

Searching For Sugar Man

So, back around 1970, labels were going nuts trying to find "New Bob Dylans". Or, as Loudon Wainwright III sings it, in his "Talking New Bob Dylan" song:

Out of commission in a motorcycle wreck
Holed up at Woodstock with a broken neck
The labels were lookin' for guys with guitars
Out to make millions lookin' for stars...

Wandering around ol' Detroit was a man known as Rodriguez who was spotted by a producer singing in a dive with his back to the audience. But who blew the producer away anyway.

Before you know it Rodrigquez has a record deal, and he records his revolutionary-ish folk music and puts out a record—that no one buys. Only slightly daunted, he puts out another record—that no one buys. In the midst of recording the third, he gets dropped by the label.

Sounding a lot like the ol' Loudo, actually, except for two things: 1) He sort of vanishes. I say "sort of" because he's not really known in the first place; 2) His records make their way over to South Africa, where he becomes a cultural icon; 3) He's such an icon, and a voice of a generation opposed to apartheid, that 25 years later, his older fans decide to look for him, all convinced that he died in some spectacular fashion on-stage (immolation, shooting himself in the head).

I won't tell you how it turns out (though the trailer spoils it, if you're paying close attention) but I will say it's a wonderful, charming story of a fascinating guy.

Did NOT care for the music.

Heh. No, it's not bad. It's very Dylan-esque, only moreso.

It's very well presented, with photographs and film footage and animations subtly woven in-between the interviews, and a funny thing happens: The pseudo-revolutionary music of that era, which is fairly insufferable at best and at worst toxic, makes a whole lot more sense and works a whole lot better when it's transplanted to a place with a genuine oppressive government.

Say, South Africa.

Living in a country that combined apartheid with sweeping control over basic freedoms of supposedly free whites, the revolutionary sound gains a little more relevance. It becomes a little less like armchair rabble-rousing (the most egregious being John Lennon's Some Time In New York City, which made limousine liberals in Manhattan say, "Dude!") and a little more like something—well, I as the white, middle-class South Africans put it, it was permission to rebel.

Not that the South African government didn't try to stop it. Meanwhile, American record producers are collecting royalties that seem to vanish. (Living the stereotype, those record producers are!)

The portrayal of Rodriguez himself shows a man of authenticity as well. His producers tell of meeting him on street corners and in diners—they did not know where he lived, or if he lived anywhere. Singing and songwriting being a low paying gig, if it pays at all, Rodriguez did construction work, too.  He got involved, or tried to, in local government.

Anyway, it's a fun show. The Boy liked it, and he thought it only dragged a little, which is about as high a mark as he ever gives a documentary.

I found it enjoyable the whole way through, and actually better and better as it went along. There are some great and surprisingly fun aspects to it. Definitely worth checking out.

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