Category: Rock & Pop


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(A quick aside before my actual review begins. I have to do two movie reviews today. I watched this Oscar-winning documentary last night before I went to sleep and as soon as I woke up today, my family went to the mall to watch Star Trek Into Darkness. So, if this review for this excellent documentary seems short or rushed, I apologize. )

When I was writing about music in New York City, I found myself overwhelmed with the simple fact that there are an astounding number of talented musicians out there, but unless the cards play exactly right, most of them won’t get noticed in indie music circles let alone gain mainstream exposure. The bands that get famous are the ones that sell and that isn’t always a mark of talent; anyone who’s ever seen the sales numbers of a Nickelback album know that you can make awful, misogynistic music and still sell like hot-cakes. For artists (and I consider myself one as I’m an aspiring screenwriter), we may not make art for money or fame, but we at least appreciate recognition of our talents. When an astonishingly great talent goes totally unrecognized, it’s simply a crime, and 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man chronicles a truly unsung American folk rock artist who spent most of his life in total obscurity not knowing that halfway around the world, he was a cultural icon.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a strikingly voiced and notoriously shy folk singer by the name of Sixto Rodriguez (though her performed primarily under the mononym, Rodriguez) made waves in the Detroit bar music scene with his gritty lyrics of urban poverty and repression and his general anti-establishment atmosphere as well as from his more general talents as a musician and a songwriter. Rodriguez was offered a record deal from Sussex Records where he released not one but two albums. Both records, Cold Facts and Coming From Reality, were beloved by critics and musical insiders alike, but no one in America bought the album and it didn’t sell. Rodriguez was let go from his record label, and he quietly disappeared into obscurity and no one knew whether he was still alive and the rumor was that he had killed himself on stage.

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However, unbeknownst to Rodriguez or even his own record label, his albums became smash hits in apartheid-era South Africa. Some American girl brought the album to the country and before any one knew it, Rodriguez became an underground sensation. His message of personal liberation and recognition of the hardships that minorities and the impoverished faced resonated with a nation suffering under the boot heels of racial segregation and an oppressive regime. Rodriguez’s music was as popular in South Africa as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. His music was considered by many to be a soundtrack to their generation’s struggles. And, in the 1990s, two fans of Rodriguez make it their goal to uncover the mystery behind their favorite musician, and that’s where the magic of the film really begins.

I don’t want to say much more about the events that unfold in this film because for most Americans, Rodriguez will be a total mystery and much of the pleasure of the film is watching the truth slowly be unraveled. Because there isn’t much period footage for when the investigative aspects of the film took place (the late 90s) and there especially isn’t footage of Rodriguez in his 70s prime (because nobody cared who he was), Searching for Sugar Man plays out mostly through interviews as well as extensive use of Rodriguez’s catalog of music (to display how truly talented he is). The film may not have something grand to say about the human condition, but as a portrayal of the often unrewarding and often non-existent path to stardom, the documentary aptly explores the less glamorous side of an artist’s life in a manner akin to the spiritually similar In the Shadow of the Stars.

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The film wouldn’t have worked had Rodriguez’s music not been as powerful as the filmmakers and the various individuals interviewed made it seem. The whole movie is premised on the notion that Rodriguez was essentially as talented as Bob Dylan but simply couldn’t sell. And if he wasn’t that good, the movie would have seemed unnecessary. Thankfully, he is as good as advertised if not better. I was a rock journalist in New York City, and just like movies, I have a pretty prolific knowledge of music. I had never heard of Rodriguez outside of the context of the buzz surrounding this film. His music is phenomenal and reminds me of Van Morrison meets Bob Dylan. From a pure talent perspective, he should have been one of the biggest names of the 1970s, and hopefully, this Academy Award winning film should help make more Americans aware of his existence.

I still need to review Star Trek Into Darkness as well as do some work for Bonnaroo. I’m doing some coverage of the festival for the website that I wrote for in New York City and I have an article due on Friday. I need to work on it because I start a new job tomorrow, and I’m unsure what my schedule will look like for the rest of this week. I’ll leave on this note then. If you have even a passing interest in classic rock and 1960s/1970s folk music, you need to listen to Rodriguez right now. I will be buying the soundtrack to this movie as soon as I get my first paycheck at my new job. And if you enjoy the music and enjoy documentaries, check out Searching for Sugar Man which is a riveting look into a rock icon that never was.

Final Score: A-

 

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 My tastes in music often trend dangerously close into hipster territory. I firmly believe that Radiohead is greatest band since the Beatles and that Panda Bear’s Person Pitch is my generation’s answer to Pet Sounds. While The Suburbs was probably Arcade Fire’s weakest album, I was ecstatic to see it win Best Album at the Grammy’s instead of the other garbage albums that had been nominated. It is perfectly apt then that the first concert film I review for this blog is the seminal classic Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense. The Talking Heads were the kings of the art school crowd in the 1980’s, and while I had never really formally introduced myself to their music, this film was a splendid introduction and quickly made the Talking Heads one of my new favorite bands even if I’m mildly convinced that David Byrne isn’t entirely sane.

The film begins with David Byrne entering on stage by himself with just his acoustic guitar and a boom box. He breaks into a solo rendition of the group’s hit “Psycho Killer” which is probably my favorite Talking Heads song. At the end of each song, a new member (or two) of the band joins David Byrne on stage as they go deeper and deeper into the band’s catalog until the whole band (and the band is huge) is on stage rocking out like nobody else on the planet. The film was edited together from three separate concerts but you never actually notice that while the film is being directed. Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) was the man behind the camera and the lighting and cinematography and professional hardly does her work justice. This was easily the most well made concert film I’ve ever seen and that includes the stellar Woodstock documentary.

Like I said earlier, I wasn’t really that familiar with the Talking Heads music before I watched this film. I had heard “Psycho Killer” because of Rock Band and “Burning Down the House” is their most famous song. I had no idea how talented and engaging their music is. I’m literally at a loss for words on how to describe their music. It’s like if you took the funk of Parliament, added in some of the sonic and psychadelic aspects of Pink Floyd, threw in a mix of the New Romantic stuff like the Replacements, sprinkled a little Santana in, and then something that is entirely their own, and you can begin to imagine their incredibly unique sound. You have complex orchestration spread out over a band with almost ten members mixed with a sound and energy that almost makes them feel like a jam band. This is dance music for smart people.

David Byrne is possible insane. He throws himself around in fits and shakes and seizures like he’s Joe Cocker on cocaine. He swivels his hips and prances around the stage like he’s Buddy Holly and wears ridiculously over-sized suits. He makes crazy faces like he’s slowly losing his mind while singing some of the band’s more out there and sinister songs. At one point, he just started doing laps around the stage during an extended bass/lead guitar segment. There was so much manic energy during every second of this performance that it’s a wonder that David Byrne didn’t have a heart attack from the exertion. That energy passed over to every single member of the group who all looked like they were having the times of their lives on that stage and that is part of what made the film so fun.

If you like music and have a scrap of intellect, you should check this one out. It was simply amazing. It’s been a while since I watched a concert film before this, and Woodstock might have been the last one, but now I want to watch more. One of my great regrets in life is that I haven’t had a chance to see more of the bands I love live. I also hate the fact that a lot of my favorite bands are no longer together and still making music. This is must watch cinema.

 Final Score: A