(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.
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.
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-