Searching for Sugar Man


Just chillin', Detroit-style.

Just chillin’, Detroit-style.

(2012) Music Documentary (Sony Classics) Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Clarence Avant, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Dan DiMaggio, Jerome Ferretti, Steve Rowland, Willem Möller, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Steve M. Harris, Robbie Mann, Eva Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

documented

Fame in the music business is a very fickle thing. Some have it who don’t deserve it. Some deserve it who don’t have it. Some work hard to get it while others couldn’t care less if they have it. Fame isn’t the be-all and end-all for a musician, but it is a measure of how much their music gets heard, which is after all what being a musician is all about.

Rodriguez was a young folk singer in the late 1960s working in the Detroit area. A construction worker by day, he’d play in seedy bars at night, wowing crowds with his direct songwriting style and his plaintive voice. A pair of executives for a subsidiary of Motown records saw him perform and thinking they’d discovered the next big thing, signed the young troubadour to a contract, knowing Motown wanted to make inroads in the rock market.

His first album, Cold Fact (1970) was a legendary flop, barely selling enough to make up the cost of catering for the project. The follow-up Coming From Reality (1971) also bombed. The label dropped Rodriguez and he faded from view, doomed to the obscurity of failed rock and roll careers.

Except a funny thing happened. In apartheid-era South Africa, his music struck a chord. Anti-apartheid activists used its direct appeal for unity as a rallying point. Although the repressive South African government banned the music on their government-owned radio or from being imported into their country, bootlegged copies sold like wildfire. In fact, Rodriguez outsold Elvis in South Africa.

Segerman, an enterprising record store owner, and Strydom, a rock journalist, decided to see if they could find Rodriguez for the purpose of bringing him to South Africa to perform. That proved to be very difficult; there was little information about him available and rumors even had it that he had even committed suicide, either shooting himself in the head or dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire depending on who you talked to. There was no evidence of either version having happened definitively but the rumors were persistent.

So were the two men however and their journey was followed by Bendjelloul, a Swedish actor/filmmaker. It was no easy task finding a man who didn’t know anyone was looking for him, a man who had left fame and its trappings behind. The men weren’t even sure they would find a living legend, or a dead rumor. Even in the era of the Internet their search was frustrating and often fruitless, until it took an unexpected turn.

Bendjelloul treats this not just as a documentary but as a mystery as well and we watch the step by step search. Therefore we feel like we’re searching for Rodriguez as well, and the information so tantalizing, so compelling that we get caught up in it. Part of the reason is that they make liberal use of his music as a soundtrack and yes, everything you’ve heard is right – the music is amazing. It is almost incomprehensible to me why this man never made it. His music is as good as anything you have heard from that era or since, but even now there are those who say that because he just used his own last name that people figured he was a Mexican singing Mexican folk. This is nothing of the sort, my friends, other than the penchant of Mexican folk music to be about social justice.

There isn’t a ton of archival footage of Rodriguez so it’s augmented by animation and contemporary interviews with those involved in his career. The movie never gets boring a Bendjelloul takes us through every twist and turn the investigators take. I won’t tell you what the results of their investigations are, only that you will feel inspired once the closing credits start rolling.

This won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2013 and it was against some pretty stiff competition, including The Gatekeepers and The Invisible War but that would turn out to be sadly not enough. Bendjelloul, about a year later, committed suicide after battling depression all his life in an irony that can’t be escaped, considering the subject of his documentary was rumored to have committed suicide himself. It is a bittersweet coda to what is otherwise an amazing, wonderful movie that at the very least stands as an enduring legacy not only to Rodriguez but to Bendjelloul, his talent as a filmmaker and his obvious humanity.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing story well-told. A soundtrack that will stay in your memory for a long time. Uplifting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally looks like it was shot on an iPhone – which some of it was.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intent was for Bendjelloul to do 3D animations to augment the film but he couldn’t afford them so the oven paper drawings he did to illustrate what he intended to do were used in the film instead.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with the director and star of the documentary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Documented continues

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Inside Llewyn Davis


The Greenwich Village People.

The Greenwich Village People.

(2013) Drama (CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karpovsky, Helen Hong, Bradley Mott, Michael Rosner, Bonnie Rose, Sylvia Cauders, Amelia McClain. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Some places and times held a sort of magic that created oodles of great music that has stood the test of time – places like Athens, Georgia in the mid-80s, San Francisco in the late 60s, Manchester, England in the 90s and Greenwich Village in the late 50s, early 60s. In the last of these, beatniks and folk musicians were thrown together to begin a phase of rock and roll exemplified by Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk, among others.

In this milieu toils Llewyn Davis (Isaac), once a member of the duo Timlin and Davis – until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge in a fit of melancholy that was as counterculture as a suicide can get (“You’re supposed to throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge,” grouses one character. “The George Washington Bridge? Who does that?!?”) and now Davis is trying to go it alone. It is winter in the Village and he has no money, existing from gig to gig and without a winter coat. He relies on the generosity of his friends to give him a couch to sleep on during the night and maybe a cup of coffee or some food.

When he accidentally lets out the cat of his Upper West Side buddies the Gorfeins (Phillips, Bartlett) who essentially show off Llewyn as their bohemian folk singer friend, he embarks on an odyssey of his own that takes him into the life of Jean (Mulligan), a fellow folk singer and a member of the duo Jim (Timberlake) and Jean who has gotten pregnant. Who is the father? Could be Jim, whom she is married to and wants to have a baby with…or it might be Llewyn whom she slept with in an inadvisable night of drunken regret. She doesn’t want to have the baby if it’s at all possible that the baby could be his. Fortunately for her, he has an abortionist on call for what seems to be a string of brief flings.

He ends up on a road trip to Chicago with a taciturn driver (Hedlund) and a garrulous jazz musician (Goodman) who when he’s not sleeping is regaling Llewyn with highly mannered stories about jazz hipsters he has known. He goes to meet an impresario (Abraham) his agent (Grayson) was supposed to have sent a copy of his album to…but didn’t. In tow is this cat who is the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.

The Coens specialize in taking ancient stories and modernizing them and there are elements of this here, not just in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner but also in their old standard Odyssey as well as maybe a few newer tales. While there is a good deal of humor here, it is less in the dry, deadpan style they’re known for and a bit more subtle and a lot darker.

Oscar Isaac kills here. Not only does he sing and play guitar, he also acts. Llewyn Davis is a bit of a prick; he uses his friends and when they’re usefulness has been exhausted, he moves on. He is frustrated and is known to lash out without provocation and he is a bit on the arrogant side, Starving Artist division. Yet even despite Llewyn Davis’ many faults, Isaac imbues him with a kind of empathy that allows him to see through the pain. While he doesn’t necessarily like people all that much, he relates to them real well. Isaac, who has been one great role away from stardom, has found that role. Expect him to be an A-lister from here on in.

There are some fine supporting performances here as well, from the shrewish folk singer by Mulligan to the mannered jazz musician by Goodman which is a good deal out of both their comfort zones I think. Timberlake also does some good work that is a bit out of his own comfort zone, playing the terminally nice and terminally clueless Jim.

The music here is absolutely amazing. My mom used to love Peter, Paul and Mary and had an album of Vanguard folk singers that included the Weavers, Odetta and Cisco Houston and I listened to that album often. While the folk singers on that album weren’t the well-scrubbed WASPs that several of the singers are here (and which the dark-haired Llewyn is not), the vibe is at least approachable. Most of the music was recorded live and the actors mainly sang and played their instruments for real.

What happened though was that I felt disconnected from the movie to a large extent. I normally love what the Coen Brothers do and even their less successful movies (Burn After Reading) have at least something of interest about them. Frankly I admired the craft of the movie in re-creating the era; as I said, I loved the music and the performances as well. The movie just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe I was just in a bad mood but I left the movie feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it is the circular nature of the story which begins and ends with essentially the same incident although you’re never sure when the flashback actually begins.

Still, the Coens’ worst is better than the best of most directors. They take chances and at the end of the day, their movies aren’t made to please anybody but themselves which is the proper way to go about making movies. Try to please too many people and you end up pleasing nobody.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous music. Isaac is a star.

REASONS TO STAY: Much more mainstream than we’re used to from the Coens.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language including some sexual references as well as some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The photograph of Chris Eldridge, guitarist for the Punch Brothers (a real folk band who contributed heavily to the music) is seen on the Timlin and Davis album cover; Eldridge is identified as Mike Timlin, the partner who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Mighty Wind

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)