Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Singer of Songs: Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man

Sixto Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man
In his 2002 documentary, Stone Reader, director Mark Moskowitz, a dedicated life-long reader of novels his entire life, goes on a quest to find Dow Mossman, the author of a 1972 novel, The Stones of Summer. The work had come to possess him in his adult years. (After trying to read it as a young man, Moskowitz gave up after a few pages. Coming back to it years later, he couldn't put it down.) In searching for Mossman, who had disappeared from the literary landscape during the Seventies with no follow-up novel, Moskowitz used the same intuitive impulses that first lead him as a boy to become such a voracious reader. With the zeal of a modern day Huck Finn, Moskowitz took off on his own American sojourn to find Dow Mossman (while simultaneously deducing the clues to his disappearance in the manner of Sherlock Holmes). Stone Reader is about how a writer's voice can come to inhabit us; and the lingering pleasure of the film is in how it reinforces our own private communion with literature.

Though Stone Reader is certainly a one-of-a-kind story, it may well have found its perfect soul-mate in Searching for Sugar Man (which is coming out on DVD this month). This Swedish/British co-production, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, is also about a quest for an artist who has become lost in time. But unlike Mossman, who never caught the larger reading public's imagination, Sixto Rodriguez, an American pop artist unacknowledged in his homeland, became a near legendary figure miles away in South Africa where he turned out to be as big as Elvis. The rousing aspect of the picture comes in seeing just how Rodriguez's music unwittingly becomes part of the spirit of a people fighting for social and political justice against apartheid. What's curious, however, is that Rodriguez's work isn't the most obvious form of political agit-prop to be embraced by a cause. Instead he writes delicately poetic and engagingly impressionistic songs of social realism; tunes which stoke the imagination rather than tear down walls. Searching for Sugar Man follows the efforts of two Cape Town fans, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, who try to find him in the post-apartheid years.

Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singer-songwriter discovered in a Detroit bar in the late Sixties, doesn't possess the dynamic voice of a rabble-rouser. He sings in a light tenor that resembles a less affected José Feliciano with a literary frame of mind. His first album, Cold Fact, released in 1970, features figurative songs like “Sugar Man” (about drugs) and “Crucify Your Mind,” which for some suggest the strong influence of Dylan. But Cold Fact actually has more in common with the social protest heard a year later in fellow Detroit artist Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. (Like Gaye, Rodriguez also has a song on his record called “Inner City Blues.”) But where Gaye's landmark R&B album would have a seismic impact on both his career and on popular culture, Rodriguez's release took him down the road to obscurity. Although Rodriguez followed up with a strong sophomore effort, Coming From Reality, in 1971, with equally good material (including the song “Cause” which sounds like early Townes Van Zandt on a sunny day), he was quickly dropped from his record label and disappeared into the world of manual labour to raise his family. (His two lovely daughters are interviewed throughout the picture and they articulate with great affection their father's humble demeanour, as well as speaking with pride about how he continued to create a value for art in their lives.) 

Searching for Sugar Man reveals how a mythical life can become part of urban legend, too, in the same manner as Elvis. Over the years, many have spotted the supposedly dead Elvis pumping gas, or eating burgers in some highway diner, while Segerman and Strydom thought Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage during a concert in the Seventies. (The ghost of Johnny Ace might have been impressed.) Their glee at finding him alive is only matched when they are able to convince him to journey to South Africa to perform a concert and meet his adoring fans. Instead of a recipe for failure, where this then 50-year-old artist attempts to meet an audience he never had a chance to attract at home, the show (with local musicians who memorized his bootlegged records) is a roaring success. What is maybe most surprising is just how at ease he is with the sudden acclaim. There is a Zen-like acceptance of his fate as if he believed that all things come in their time. That same Zen acquiescence seems to have influenced Bendjelloul as well. He directs Searching for Sugar Man simply, letting the beauty of the story tell itself, while never getting in the way. Bendjelloul doesn't appear awed by what he uncovers either, which benefits the film because it allows us to discover Rodriguez and his music for ourselves. (His albums, plus the movie soundtrack, are now all available on CD.) 

When Lou Reed and Frank Zappa once separately travelled to the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution of Vaclav Havel, they were both overwhelmed to discover that fans in that country went to jail for owning their records. Listening to the testimonials of individuals who were beaten and tortured for listening to their music provided for them a sobering perspective on their global influence. (These two controversial performers had faced only censorship in their homeland.) Searching for Sugar Man is a whole other version of the American artist perceived from abroad. While Reed and Zappa had clearly defined personalities, Rodriguez's persona was one invented by the South Africans who came to embrace him. The more you watch Searching for Sugar Man, the less it seems like a documentary. It's more of a fairy-tale mystery – an inspirational saga without a whisper of sentimentality.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier begins a five-part lecture series called Woody Allen: Past and Present (with film clips) at the JCC Miles Nadal Centre in Toronto January 14 - February 11 from 7-9pm. 

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