Monday, November 05, 2012

"Searching for Sugarman"

This is a documentary film about this guy Rodriguez, who released two folk-pop crossover albums that no one bought in the late 1960s and then sunk into obscurity. It is named after one of his songs, 'Sugarman', and follows the attempts of the filmmakers to track down what happened to this reclusive figure.

Or so you might think. The film is not actually about that at all. What it is actually about is how Rodriguez, largely unknown in his own country, somehow became massively popular in South Africa. This was during the apartheid-era. The music of Rodriguez struck some kind of nerve with left-wing white South Africans, with his songs acquiring enough counter-cultural cachet to act as a signifier of alienation with the status quo while being sufficiently vague lyrically to avoid state censorship (mostly - we did see copies of Rodriguez albums in the state broadcaster's archives, where one of the more risqué songs had been scratched over by the authorities to stop it ever being played on the radio).

Because South Africa was pretty isolated in that time, both geographically and increasingly culturally, it was a while before people in the country registered that Rodriguez was more or less unknown in his home country. This to them seemed strange, as in South Africa he outsold Elvis. Nature abhors a vacuum, so rumours began to go around about what had happened to him. One report said that he had killed himself, embittered by his lack of American success. Another said that he was so upset at the lack of respect shown to him by a talky audience that he shot himself onstage. Or maybe he had died of a drøg overdose. Or been abducted by aliens. Or whatever. For the South Africans, no story was too outlandish.

The film then starts to concern itself with some guys who tried to track down Rodriguez and find out the truth about what happened to him. One guy found a phone number of what he reckoned was Rodriguez's manager in the USA. But when he rang it, he received a non-committal response; when he rang again the number was disconnected. After that the trail ran cold.

Time moved on, apartheid fell, the march of progress meant that the World Wide Web reached South Africa and the country was no longer so isolated. One of the Rodriguez-hunters set up a website about his idol. And then out of the blue he received a phone-call from a woman who said that she was Rodriguez's daughter… and that Rodriguez was still alive! OMG! TEH EXCITEMENT!

The film does rather play on the fact that most people watching it will never have heard of Rodriguez, so the singer being still alive is presented as a shocking revelation. Obviously, to all mt hipster readers who already have all Rodriguez's records and have seen him live on numerous occasions this is not such a big deal, but imagine what it must have been like for the South Africans.

After that the film tells the story of what had happened to Rodriguez in the meantime, which was a pretty mundane tale of life after a failed attempt at the big time. He had remained in his home city of Detroit, working as a labourer, bringing up three daughters and involving himself in community causes. He seemed untroubled by the failure of his music career and fundamentally at ease with himself, for all that he came across as a bit shy (isn't everyone?).

The film goes all heart-warming when he is lured out to South Africa to play some shows, with the aging members of an Afrikaans punk band backing him. He seems to really enjoy being onstage again and the film ends telling us that he has played a number of big concerts out there. And that he mostly gave away the money he made from them.
I realise I have just done that boring film reviewer thing of just summarise the film, so now let me mention some random things I liked about it:

(1) The window into the world of left-liberal white South Africa. If you are my age, you will remember the Spitting Image song 'I've Never Met A Nice South African' (implicitly, 'I've Never Met A Nice White South African'), and it is nice to get a sense that not everyone who grew up during the apartheid-era was some kind of racist gobshite (as I already know from the one white South African I have met).

(2) Rodriguez's daughters. He himself is not much of a talker, so they do most of the speaking to camera. They are three of the most charming people you could ever hope to have speaking to camera in a film, with their stories of their father's social activism and love of art being quite affecting.

(3) Rodriguez's Detroit friends. Detroit has a reputation as a bit of a dump, but these guys were all really funny and likeable in a no-bullshit blue-collar kind of way. I am not quite sure why this appeals to me so much given that I am a white-collar guy who is arguably all about the bullshit, but still, if everyone in Detroit is like this then I want to go there.

(4) The succession of record company guys (South African and American) who get all shifty when asked about whether they had been sending on royalty payments to Rodriguez. One American record company boss, who was also one of the big people in Motown, flat out accuses the South African interviewer of racism for daring to ask about financial matters.

(5) The Afrikaans punk musicians. Their punk stuff was only on-screen for a couple of seconds, but it did sound quite intriguing. Surely this kind of thing is ripe for some reissue label to bring to a wider audience? I mean, if shitey Irish post punk can rise again then this kind of exotica would haul in the punters.

Rodriguez's own music was intriguing enough. I am not entirely sure whether it has a unique selling point that makes it more interesting than any of the other folk-rock crossover acts of his era. But I would not mind hearing more of it and am interested that he is playing live in Dublin in November.

I suppose his story is a bit reminiscent of some other rediscovered artists of the past - Vashti Bunyan, Terry Callier, Nick Garrie, and so on. It must be strange for these people to have a half-forgotten episode of their youth suddenly resurrected. For me it would be like if I discovered that my one foray into play-writing had somehow become hugely popular on the other side of the world, where I have somehow become a bigger contemporary playwright than Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter.

Just checked Google, just in case. I seem not to be famous anywhere, though another person with my name appears to be making a go of this playwriting business. Bah.

Searching for Pandaman

An inuit panda production

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