Friday, October 18, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man, a film by Malik Bendjelloul

At Thomas Ford, we are quite proud of our film discussion program, started by Aaron Schmidt in 2003. We have shown a lot of great out-of-the-mainstream films, constantly enlightening and entertaining our regular and occasional discussion group members. That said, I think there was a special buzz about the room when we showed Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about the life of folk/rock singer Rodriguez. The film had gotten many positive reviews but few venues in the western suburbs of Chicago had shown it. There was elevated interest in our showing of the film. Rachel Hoover, our selector, made an excellent choice for our series.

Searching for Sugar Man tells an incredible story. Sixto Rodriguez of Detroit, Michigan was a successful if somewhat mysterious local musician in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He sought no publicity but did record two albums that sold very poorly in the United States. What no one in America noticed was that someone took copies of these albums to apartheid-torn South Africa where they became "the music of the times." Many former protesters attest that he was an inspiration for their movement. Most incredibly, Rodriguez never knew. He dropped out of the music scene, and worked in construction in a city that was falling apart.

This could be a very sad story, but it is not. The film is a celebration of music, much of it running through the soundtrack.

What struck me is the frequent comparisons of Rodriguez to Bob Dylan. I can understand how the social commentary in the lyrics of several songs suggests the comparison, but vocally and musically I think Rodriguez sounds much more like Don McLean and Jose Feliciano. The studio albums, which were recorded in London and California, were given rich orchestral treatment typical of the era. In interviews, his record producers repeatedly state they still can not figure out why he was not a star in America. Over 40 years later, the Coming from Reality album sounds very good to me.

It is nice to add that Searching for Sugar Man won numerous awards and that Rodriguez seems to remain a humble character not turned by fame. We can hope for more happy endings.

Searching for Sugar Man. Sony Picture Classics, 2013. 87 minutes.

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