Tangent Room


Seeing double.

(2017) Science Fiction (Epic) Lisa Bearpark, Håkan Julander, Jennifer Lila Knipe, Daniel Epstein, Vee Vimolval. Directed by Björn Engström

 

The universe is a complicated place and we know jack about how it works. As a species we’re not unlike infants trying to grasp the linguistic rules of Sanskrit, or in this case, quantum mechanics – literally.

Four internationally renowned scientists are brought to a Chilean astronomy station into a basement room. They are honored to be there because they have been invited by Dr. Wahlstein (Epstein), a brilliant but somewhat neurotic scientist. Each one of the invitees have a different specialization in matters of understanding the cosmos from mathematics to physics. They wonder why they have been brought there and where their host is.

That is cleared up quickly when Dr. Wahlstein appears on a video screen and tells them that he is dead and so shall all of them be by 10 pm that very night. In order to save themselves – and indeed the whole world – they must solve the riddle of a variety of numbers. I don’t want to tell you about what catastrophe is occurring – suffice to say it involves parallel universes occupying the same place – but as the scientists at first think they are the victims of a colossal practical joke begin to realize that their dilemma is all too real and all too dire.

It is a locked room conundrum movie but also that is precisely not what this is. If I sound like I’m talking in circles, I’m trying to be deliberately vague as to not spoil what happens in that locked room too much. The problem is, if I break it down to its very basic level, Tangent Room is about four scientists in a locked room bickering and that sounds about as fun as a root canal. Tangent Room, however, is anything but simple.

This is an intensely cerebral science fiction movie, maybe the most academic you’ve ever seen. It leans very hard on science and while one critic groused that it had its mathematics and physics wrong, I can’t really take that on faith as I don’t know what the guy’s qualifications are to judge that. It wouldn’t surprise me though; cinema has never been shy about sacrificing accuracy for the sake of story.

The performances are decent enough but first-time director Engström (and the film’s writer) doesn’t really have enough time to give the characters actual personalities beyond that of argumentative academics. Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain ran into much the same problem but managed to give us characters worth caring about so when the excreta hit the fan the viewers actually worried about them.

This is going to appeal to physics professors, scientists and academics pretty much exclusively, unless watching four scientists bicker about various aspects of cosmology are your idea of a fun evening out. That doesn’t mean this is a bad movie – it isn’t by any means – but with a little more creativity this could have hit both the gut and the brain but to be honest, anything that affects the brain these days is more than welcome.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally red-shifts into pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fermat’s Room
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Extra Innings

Aniara


A glimpse of a bleak future.

(2018) Science Fiction (Magnet) Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Emma Broomė, Jamil Drissi, Leon Jiber, Peter Carlberg, Juan Rodríguez, David Nzinga, Dakota Treacher Williams, Otis Castillo Ǻlhed, Dante Westergårdh, Elin Lilleman Eriksson, Agnes Lundgren, Alexi Carpentieri, Unn Dahlman, Laila Ljunggren. Directed by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja

 

We like to think we pretty much have a handle on our lives. We more or less know what we want, where we’re going and what we want to do along the way. We know we have a world of endless possibilities to explore. What happens though when we don’t?

In the future, climate change has made Earth unlivable and the human race is moving to Mars. Giant transport ships – essentially city-sized cruise ships – ferry passengers from the dying world to the new one. The Aniara is one such ship, loading up with passengers many of whom have family awaiting them on the Red Planet. The three-week journey is made easier by the presence of 21 restaurants, many more bars and nightclubs, a luxury spa, a massive mall – all the amenities of home.

Mimaroben (Jonsson) whose name is often abbreviated as “MR” runs the virtual reality room MIMA which essentially scans the brain waves of the users and picks out pleasant memories for them to relive. At the beginning of the journey she isn’t getting many customers. She shares a cabin with the Astronomer (Martini), a jaded science officer who doesn’t have much use for people.

But what is to be a routine voyage becomes something completely different in a heartbeat. A field of space junk debris penetrates the hull and forces the crew to jettison the fuel for their nuclear propulsion system. Without it, they are unable to steer or slow their momentum, leaving them to drift through space. Captain Chefone (Kananian) puts a brave face on things and tells the passengers and crew that there will be a delay in getting them to Mars – about two years instead of three weeks – but get there they will because they have a plan to use a celestial body as a slingshot to put the crippled ship back on course to Mars.

As it becomes clear that the Captain is lying through his teeth and that the Aniara is doomed to drift endlessly through space going nowhere, things change aboard the ship. The captain becomes paranoid and power-drunk; MR starts of a relationship with Isagel (Cruzeiro) and suicides become a big problem. Several cults are formed, some hedonistic, most fatalistic.

This is a beautiful film to look at with superb special effects and clean production design. I’ve seen the movie described as Passengers if it had been directed by Ingmar Bergman and it’s not that far from the truth. The tone is extremely fatalistic – it’s Scandinavian, after all – and bleak as all get out. There is some commentary on the excessive consumerism of modern society but in essence, the main theme seems to be that without a destination firmly in mind there is no point to life. I don’t know if I can agree with that.

The film isn’t helped by the bland personalities of the main characters. They are all somewhat one-dimensional, especially MR who is pushed and pulled by the eddies of life without apparently much care as to where they are taking her. She certainly doesn’t seem inclined to do any swimming of her own. While Kananian physically resembles Clive Owen, he’s no Clive Owen and gives the Captain again a fairly one-dimensional portrayal.

There is a lot of intellectual content to unpack here and those who are into cerebral sci-fi are going to find this a big win. Those who prefer their science fiction to be space operas may take some delight in the production design but are going to be bored silly – as many of the passengers are. This is the kind of movie that will appeal to a fairly narrow band of moviegoers but those that are inclined to like it are likely to like it a whole lot.

REASONS TO SEE: The special effects are stunning. The filmmakers get the herd instincts of the passengers right.
REASONS TO AVOID: The main characters are devoid of personality.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity, graphic sexual content, some drug use, a few disturbing images and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a poem by Swedish author Harry Martinson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Passengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Nona

Border (Gräns)


Swimming in really cold water can be a scream.

(2018) Romance (NEON) Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren, Kjell Wilhelmsen, Rakel Wärmländer, Andreas Kundler, Matt Boustedt, Tomas Åhnstrand, Josefin Neldén, Henrik Johansson, Ibrahim Faal, Åsa Janson, Donald Högberg, Krister Kern, Viktor Åkerblom, Robert Enckell, Elisabeth Göransson.  Directed by Ali Abbasi

 

Sometimes films come along that are so different as to be like a precious gem. You don’t really want to spoil the experience of the moviegoer by telling them too much about the plot or the movie itself – you want them to get the opportunity to see it without any preconceptions, without any prejudice. You want the power of the film to wash over them, or kick them in the gut where applicable. Border is such a film.

Tina (Melander) works at a border crossing as a guard looking for smugglers. She is successful at her job because she has the uncanny ability to smell emotions on people – things like fear, guilt and rage. When she smells that on someone, she hauls them in to have their luggage and their persons examined. Her ability has helped break up a child pornography ring and foil minors trying to smuggle booze into Sweden. Then she meets Vore (Milonoff), a traveler who for some reason foils her olfactory radar.

Vore also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Tina; both have pronounced ridges above the brow; both have teeth that would make Shane MacGowan flinch and both have mysterious scars on their backs. Both have also been struck by lightning and have a severe fear of thunderstorms which always seem to grow more violent around them. Tina is fast falling for the cavalier Vore despite the fact she lives with Roland (Thorsson) who breeds Rottweilers who for some reason have a strong dislike for Tina.

The movie is mainly from Tina’s point of view; she also has an ailing father (Ljunggren) whose memory is beginning to go who also plays a major role in discovering who Tina really is. Unlike a lot of indie dramas, Tina actually finds out who she really is. This discovery is at the heart of Border which is based on a novella by the same Swede who wrote Let the Right One In.

Both Melander and Milonoff shine in thankless roles. Both have to deal with a good deal of make-up prosthetics and act not so much around the applications but through them. Both are aware of their unconventional looks and use that to define their characters: in Vore’s case, it is a defiance that is at the center of who he is while for Tina it is shame.

The music and cinematography are both very lovely, from the winter wonderland of Sweden framed by beautiful ambient music that is soothing and not unlike the music of Sigur Ros at times. It makes for a dream-like atmosphere although there is nothing dream-like about where Tina works which is industrial and nondescript. This is like a fairy tale set in the real world and that’s really as descriptive as I can get without revealing a bunch of things that would lessen the experience for you. The best advice I can give is to go see this and decide for yourself, particularly if you like the works of off-kilter filmmakers like David Lynch or Yorgos Lanthimos. Abbasi could well end up being compared to those worthies…or they to him.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is a beautiful ambient one. Melander and Milonoff deliver strong performances in thankless roles. It’s a very different movie in a very good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending runs on a little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sex and graphic nudity as well as some disturbing images and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is Sweden’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2019 Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Perfume
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Mercy

Borg vs. McEnroe


Competition can turn enemies into friends and friends into brothers.

(2017) Biographical Sports Drama (Neon) Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Leo Borg, Marcus Mossberg, Jackson Gann, Scott Arthur, Ian Blackman, Robert Emms, David Bamber, Mats Blomgren, Julia Marko Nord, Jane Perry, Demetri Goritsas, Roy McCrerey, Bjôrn Granath, Jason Forbes, Tom Datnow, Colin Stinton, Janis Ahern. Directed by Janus Metz

Rivalries are often the most fascinating stories in sports; the Yankees-Red Sox, Ali-Frazier, Seabiscuit-War Admiral, Palmer-Nicklaus. These sorts of stories tend to capture the imagination of the public, whether in the United States or elsewhere; there are always rivalries to fuel the fervor of the sporting public.

In the 80s, one such rivalry occurred in tennis. Bjorn Borg (Gudnason) was the top player in the game. He had won four straight Wimbledon championships and was about to try for an unprecedented fifth. His emotionless demeanor and absolute control earned him nicknames like “Ice Borg” and “The Swedish Machine.”

The polar opposite is John McEnroe (LaBeouf), a temperamental American who argues calls with umpires and often unleashing profanity-laced tirades against officials on the court and off, earning him the current titleholder of the Bad Boy of Tennis like none had achieved before or, to date, since. His game was a charging net game; Borg’s was more geared towards the baseline. They were both great competitors but they had little else in common; McEnroe dug the spotlight whereas Borg was tired of living in the media glare. Borg was cheered by millions; McEnroe was mainly booed. Borg had a stable fiancée (Novotny) while McEnroe played the field. It was truly a rivalry made it heaven.

And yet in many ways the two were not all that different. As a young man (Borg), Bjorn had a great difficulty controlling his anger. That is, until he meets trainer Lennart Bergelin (Skarsgård). He teaches Borg to harness his rage and channel it constructively, to hide his emotions in order to get in the heads of his opponents. Bergelin is the reason Bjorn Borg became Bjorn Borg.

The most prestigious tournament in tennis is Wimbledon and Borg is determined to make history. Standing in his way is McEnroe, who is just as determined to make history of his own. The year is 1980 and the two are on a collision course to play one of the greatest matches in the history of the sport. To this day many believe it is the greatest tennis match ever played.

The story is indeed a compelling one but I wish it would have been handled a little differently. This Swedish-Danish co-production focuses on Borg which would normally be fine but let’s face it – McEnroe is by far the most interesting character. Gudnason bears a striking resemblance to the tennis great and does a superb job channeling him but let’s face it – the man was kind of boring. I understand that Borg remains a revered figure in Scandinavia but I think the movie would have benefited by a little more McEnroe.

Metz utilizes a lot of flashbacks to tell his story and to be honest after awhile they begin to get annoying. The flow of the film becomes choppy and frustrating at times. What’s worse is that the tennis sequences are pretty poorly shot. The angles are all wrong and we don’t get a sense of the ebb and flow of the game. To be fair Metz does a good job of getting the tension up but when the tennis sequences in a tennis movie are sub-par, that’s troubling.

All in all this is a decent enough movie but it could have been better. It could have used a little of the humor displayed in I, Tonya to name one. As it is this is mainly going to appeal to Swedes and older tennis fans for the most part.

REASONS TO GO: The rivalry is a compelling one. Gudnason does a strong job as Borg.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks get to be annoying. The tennis sequences are poorly done.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor who plays Borg as a young boy is Borg’s real life son Leo.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle of the Sexes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Straight Into a Storm

Origin (Bieffekterna)


Some things just shouldn't be meddled with.

Some things just shouldn’t be meddled with.

(2016) Science Fiction (108 Media) Emelia Hansson, Rikard Bjȏrk, Sandra Redlaff, Rafael Pettersson. Directed by Andreas Climent and André Hedetoft

Sometimes you find really good movies unexpectedly. This Swedish film has played a handful of international film festivals and is just now making its VOD debut in North America. While researching the film, I found almost no reviews (except of its trailer) and one interview with the filmmakers.

A trio of biomedical students at a Swedish university works with Professor Robert Bergmann (Pettersson) who is trying to find a way to control human DNA, specifically the aging process of cells. This would help eradicate sickness, stop disabilities and birth defects and extend life dramatically. They are meeting with failure after failure. Julia (Hansson) has some ideas of how to approach this but Bergmann refuses to consider them. He is getting frustrated because their lack of results may end up getting their grant pulled.

To complicate matters further, Erik (Bjȏrk) – who along with being a computer analyst is also Julia’s boyfriend – has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and months or maybe only weeks to live. Julia has figured out a way to attack the problem so without Bergmann’s knowledge she tests it and the students discover to their amazement that Julia’s solution worked. Erik and Julia, along with Rebecca (Redlaff) who has been working with them on Professor Bergmann’s team secretly set up a lab in Julia’s apartment. Meanwhile Erik is at death’s door and Julia is unwilling to wait for the months of testing before human trials can begin. So she injects her lover with the serum and hopes for the best.

The best is just what they get. Erik appears to make a full recovery and more. The serum seems to have heightened his senses and strength, turning him almost superhuman. At first it’s all fun and games but then as Erik’s behavior grows more aggressive and he becomes prone to fits of rage, Julia begins to worry that Erik is being changed in a fundamental way. Rebecca, who has been feeling like the odd person out in the trio, secretly injects herself with the serum.

That’s when the other shoe drops. It becomes apparent that Erik’s body is fighting the new genomes which will end up with his body destroying itself. The race against time begins to find away to beat Erik’s own immune system…but are they meddling with things that human beings shouldn’t?

The publicity of the film uses the term “biohacking” which apparently is a thing. They even thoughtfully provide a definition on the movie’s poster which is “the act of exploiting genetic material without regard to acceptable ethical standards, or for criminal purposes.” I call it the “Frankenstein syndrome’ – a film concerned with the ethics of science. As Ian Malcolm once put it, “you were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you didn’t stop to think if you should.” That’s the crux of the matter here.

Like Arrival, the movie is more about the concepts than the special effects and quite frankly there really isn’t very much here if any. All the effects as far as I could tell were practical and most of the science fiction was concept. While not quite up to the multi-layered story that was told there, this is still a truly remarkable film that comes right out of left field and tells a solid story without trying to reinvent the wheel.

The acting is pretty much solid although there are tendencies to over-exaggerate hysteria when the script calls for it. You might be surprised because she doesn’t get a ton of screen time but I found Redlaff to be one of the better performers here. She has tons of potential and I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes a big star in Sweden, or even crosses the pond to become a player in Hollywood. If Alicia Vikander can do it, it certainly can be done again.

There are a lot of pop culture references here, from Game of Thrones to certain other films and while that might end up dating the movie a little bit, they actually make for clever touchstones that Millennials would identify with and refer to. In other words, these university students act like university students, albeit post-grads.

I was thoroughly entertained and both my mind and heart stimulated. That’s a pretty good accomplishment for any film and especially one which has arrived with almost no fanfare or buzz. I’ve provided links to their current VOD streaming locations and I strongly urge you to take a chance on this one, particularly if you like good science fiction. No space battles or weird monsters here but a well-told tale nonetheless that gives insight into the line between human and something else.

REASONS TO SEE: Climent and Hedetoft are master storytellers. Makes use of pop culture references effectively.
REASONS TO MISS: Some of the acting is a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some language, violence, sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the feature film debut of Climent and Hedetoft who have previously collaborated on short films and commercials for such companies as Alfa Romeo and Cadbury.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Blood on the Mountain

A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove)


Parvaneh and Ove make their daily rounds.

Parvaneh and Ove make their daily rounds.

(2015) Dramedy (Music Box) Rolf Lassgärd, Bahar Pars, Tobias Almborg, Ida Engvoll, Börje Lundberg, Chatarina Larsson, Holger Hastén, Ola Hedén, Stefan Gödicke, Sofie Gallerspáng, Filip Berg, Zozan Akgun, Viktor Baagøe, Simon Edenroth, Anna-Lena Bergelin, Poyan Karimi, Nelly Jamarani, Simeon Lindgren, Maja Rung, Jessica Olsson Directed by Hannes Holm

 

As we make our way through life, we are sometimes fortunate enough to find that perfect someone, someone who compliments us and completes us. That person makes our life so much more satisfying; we share all our highs and lows with that person. We can’t imagine life without them. When that person is taken from us too soon, we feel an emptiness that can never be filled, like a part of us is missing never to return. It is understandable that when that happens our thoughts turn to leaving this life.

Ove (Lassgärd) is 59 years old and six months a widower. A crotchety, grumpy sort, he lives in a quiet development in Sweden where the homeowners association – once headed by Ove himself – has forbidden driving on the streets of the development, and requires gates to be closed, dogs to be leashed and bikes to be properly stored. Ove makes daily rounds to make sure these rules are adhered to, although they rarely are it seems. He has worked for the train authority for 43 years, starting out by cleaning the trains when he’s 16 years old. Now, his job is being automated and he’s being put out to pasture.

He’s ready to end it all and join his wife Sonja (Engvoll) in the hereafter. However his attempts to take his own life are continuously interrupted, particularly by Parvaneh (Pars), the Iranian-born (and very pregnant) wife of Patrik (Almborg) who is Swedish. The couple has just moved in across the street with their adorable but noisy children which irritates Ove no end. To make matters worse, Patrik is hopeless around the house so Parvaneh turns to Ove to help, borrowing a ladder (which Patrik promptly falls off from, requiring a hospital trip that rescues Ove from yet another suicide attempt) and eventually asking him to help her get her driver’s license. The two begin to bond as friends in a kind of father-daughter way but still definitely friends. They enlist Ove to babysit and he begins to connect with the little ones.

We see Ove and his relationship with Sonja in a series of flashbacks that are cleverly disguised as his life passing before his eyes during his various suicide attempts. Eventually he begins to respond to those around him, adopting a cat he’d been trying to chase away – while we discover what it was that made him so bitter in the first place.

Part of why this works – a significant part – is the performance of Lassgärd which is quite special. The cranky old man is a global cinematic trope which extends back to the silent days, but Lassgärd imbues Ove with a dignity that makes him larger than life, but at the same time allows his humanity to show sometimes unexpectedly. It is the latter bit that makes Ove real and relatable; he has been through some real tribulation and through it all he had Sonja by his side to bring out the angels of his better nature, but with her gone he has fallen into despair and loneliness. He knows what other think of him and while he sloughs it off, deep down he hurts. Lassgärd brings that all out to the surface and makes Ove vulnerable and intimidating at once.

There’s a scene where Ove is dressed down by one of the dreaded “white shirts” – his code for bureaucratic bullies who have antagonized him all his life, going back to when he was a young man living in his late father’s home where he’d grown up and a council member who wanted the land his home stood on, condemned his house and allowed it to burn with all his possessions in it, ordering the fire brigade not to put it out. Had it have been me I’d have thrown the bastard into the house and say “I’ll bet he wants you to put it out now.”

The relationship between Ove and Parvaneh is also very natural and realistic. She’s sweet and caring and she doesn’t allow Ove to bully her. Of all the residents of the development, she seems to be the only one who sees past his gruff behavior and realizes that there’s a good man buried under all that. She hears him refer to nearly everyone else (particularly her husband) as “idiots,” which seems to be a fairly common epithet in Ove’s world. In my more curmudgeonly moments I can relate to the sentiment.

I can get why some may have difficulty with this movie; it is, after all, unashamedly manipulative. Some people really don’t like having their heartstrings tugged and I get that, but maybe I was just in the right place for it. I was truly moved by Ove and his life, and when the end of the movie came I was bawling like a cranky baby. Movies like this one used to be called “tear-jerkers” and they came by the epithet honestly.

Watching Ove’s life unspool over the course of the film is satisfying. Everything makes sense here and while some might feel that some of the tragedies are a little contrived, I thought that it was very much a highlight reel; we get a sense of the day to day but like most of us, the big events are what stick in the memory. There are some moments that are shocking and unexpected; life doesn’t always come at us from an angle we see clearly. Sometimes, we are taken by surprise.

This is definitely one of my favorite films so far this year. I know not everyone will agree with me but I found it cathartic and touching and real. When the tears came, they were come by honestly. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with Ove – it would be like hanging with a grouchy bear – but I really loved getting to know him and seeing his life. I don’t do this very often, but after seeing this on a press screener, I’ve made plans to go see it at the Enzian and bring more family along. It’s that good.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Lassgärd. A very poignant but sweet and sometimes stirring film. There are some unexpected incidents that make the film even more powerful. Very much a “slice of life.”
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that are disturbing as well as a few brief instances of mild profanity and a couple of instances of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the official Swedish submission to the next Academy Awards Foreign Language film competition in 2017.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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