Friday, 3 August 2012

Review: Searching for Sugarman (Semi-spoilers)

A documentary charting the attempts of a few South Africans to shed some light on the death (and life) of American musician Sixto "Jesus" Rodriguez, arguably one of the world's greatest singer-songwriters, but completely unknown outside South Africa.

Perhaps a spoiler warning on a documentary seems odd. However, the documentary itself plays on myth and mystery, relying on the audience to be as clueless on Rodriguez walking into the cinema as the majority of the world, or even bearing the preconceptions which our narrators do at the start of the film.

My strongest advice, therefore, would be to shy away from any reviews, and especially from any Wikipedia articles or other googling about Rodriguez. What you should take away from this review ends with this paragraph: This is a film about wonderment, which touches on the very best in humans and the human experience, of self-fulfilment, of homecoming, and above all, of truly magnificent music. Seek it out and soak it in.

Warning done, I shall now delve a little deeper, while trying to stay as spoiler-free as possible.

There are several overarching constraints on this documentary, which have an inevitable impact on the finished product. Chief among these is that the documentary was made more than a dozen years after the culmination of the events it describes, and 40 years after the beginning of the story. As a result, there is very little contemporaneous footage in the film, which is mostly made up of talking heads and scenic shots.

Every subject interviewed is hugely passionate about Rodriguez. Such fervour is infectious, and I found myself shortly looking beyond the limitations of the presentation and becoming immersed in the tale itself.

It is by no means visually poor, though; the film is beautifully shot. The visuals do occasionally go overboard and draw attention to themselves: there are misguided animation sequences, overstylised title cards, and a couple of obviously staged treks through snowy landscapes. A couple of interviews are against backdrops so striking as to almost be distracting. Brief, furtive attempts to associate Rodriguez' lyrics to imagery of the slums of Detroit fall flat. But these are quibbles.

For those who know Rodriguez' music already, the heavy rotation of the title track, "Sugarman", may become a little tiring by the third time the opening lines are played. Nonetheless, there is broad enough coverage of his repertoire that even if you'd never heard of him before, by the credit roll you will have a good sense of his music.

The real strength of this film, however, is its narrative. To the few naysayers who complain that the film is economic with the facts, I respond that this has been true of every great character documentary from When We Were Kings to Senna. It is the simple necessity of telling a story about a real person in 2 hours - real life is too complex, hypocritical, convoluted and muddy to generate good cinema. To make an effective, engrossing story, documentary makers must pull on some threads and brush away others.

Searching for Sugarman is the majestic story of a man whose destiny finally catches up with him. For reasons unclear, Rodriguez never found the success he was due in his time. A whisper of him travelled to a faraway land, where his music took root and grew, unbeknownst to him. Meanwhile, those who revered him as an icon were oblivious to his plight, and so the aura of mystery around the man fed on itself and the man's musical legacy until Rodriguez became, to paraphrase some of the key players, bigger than the Rollling Stones, better than Dylan, on a par with The Beatles and Elvis.

So how is it that no-one knew anything about him beyond the picture on the album cover, of a Mexican looking hippy in shades and a big hat?

Extraordinary though it may seem that a man of such iconic status should in the modern era be so undocumented, I can vouch first-hand for the total lack of any information on Rodriguez at the height of the period described in this film. I first heard him as a teenager in about 1995, a full three years before the climax of the story the documentary describes. In the same manner as those who speak on camera first heard him: on a third-generation bootleg casette, which even through the lo-fi grindings of the magnetic strip blew me away.

There was only rumour - the friend who'd brought back the bootleg and stories from the southern hemisphere told us that Rodriguez had blown his brains out onstage before we were born, in front of a crowd of hundreds. There was little internet at the time, so no way to verify or disprove this tale. It took me years to find a copy of the album on CD, and another friend took a further 12 years to get me a copy of his second album.

Rodriguez didn't exist. We'd imagined him.

The music was a gift left behind by someone who had simply vanished from the face of the earth.

That was the underlying feeling of all Rodriguez fans. Even of the 3 daughters who knew nothing of their father's legacy before this film.

This film taps directly into that sentiment from the opening couple of interviews, and then takes you on the rollercoaster which saw a music journalist and a die-hard fan come together and undertake a detective's journey from Cape Town to Detroit, and back again. By the end of the journey everyone's life has changed beyond recognition, but the soul of Rodriguez remains immutable, and somehow still shrouded in mystery.

But the biggest shot of all, the one which turns the whole film on its head, is perhaps the simplest: A window in a dilapidated house being opened. In one shot, the film discovers new lungs, and builds to some of the most glorious, uplifting moments of self-realisation ever committed to camera.

Find it, watch it, buy the album.

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