Saturday, February 9, 2013

Movie – Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Searching for Sugar Man is nominated this year in Oscar’s documentary category.  It is about the quest of a couple of South Africans to find an American folk singer that by chance had become massively popular in their country.  Much like the doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008) these filmmakers shift events around and leave out some key facts, all in the name of making a more entertaining movie.  Despite this, it is not a complete fabrication and it does have a satisfying arc for the viewer.

In 1970 and 1971 a folk singer known only as Rodriguez recorded two albums that were praised by the few music people who heard them, but that sold nothing when it came to the general public.  Outside of the bars and venues he played in, no one in the U.S. ever heard of Rodriguez.  Somehow one of his albums ended up in South Africa, radio stations started playing it, and it became hugely popular with the teenagers of the time.  Two of those now middle aged men are the key people in this film.

There were a number of urban legends about what happened to Rodriguez.  Some said he shot himself, others that he set himself on fire in protest.  Everyone agreed the suicide occurred on stage in front of an audience.  If the trailer and tagline for the film hadn’t already let you know that Rodriguez was still with us, the wildly divergent stories of his death would clue you in.

According to the film, in the 1990s a South African man decided to get serious about tracking down what happened to Rodriguez.  He says he examined song lyrics looking for clues to locations he might have lived at.  He contacted the companies that distributed the music, both in South Africa and in the U.S.  He did find that those companies were obviously pocketing the money and not sharing any royalties with the musician, but that storyline in the film is not pursued.

He finally finds out that Rodriguez is very much alive and living in Detroit.  We see interviews with the musician, which we are led to believe were from the 90s, but are obviously done in the present time (i.e. technology, Rodriguez’s age), with the interviewer and Rodriguez apparently trying to re-create their first meeting.

Rodriguez was completely surprised to find that his music sold better in South Africa than pretty much any other musician.  “The South African Elvis” was tossed out more than once.  He is convinced to visit the country to experience it for himself.  The filmmakers become heroes by bringing this musical icon back to their country.

There’s just one problem with all of this: Rodriguez was never lost.  Not only was he big in South Africa, but Australia loved him as well.  Rather than disappearing in the early 70s like this film would have you believe, he toured Australia several time in the late 70s and early 80s, even releasing a live Greatest Hits album from these tours in 1981.  (It was titled “Alive” in reference to legends of his suicide.)  The film makes mention only of the first two albums he made in the early 70s.  At that time of these tours the only performer who sold more tickets than him in Australia was Rod Stewart.

Another place where liberties are taken with the story is that the South Africans didn’t actually ever track him down.  Rodriguez’s daughter happened across their fansite for her father and contacted them, letting them know her father was alive and where he was living.  She mentions this in passing during the film, so it’s not like the filmmakers are trying to completely re-write what happened.

Ultimately, Searching for Sugar Man is just as much about South Africa and the men who were searching for him, as it is about the man himself.  The best part is that because of this film Rodriguez is now starting to get fans in the U.S. and Europe.  His album sales have taken off in both places.  It’s a nice story.  I can’t imagine someone being bored by it, let alone hating it.  If it sounds interesting to you, then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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