Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man

Alternate Title:  The World before Google

One sentence synopsis:     A handful of South African music aficionados from the fall of Apartheid go hunting for an obscure American musician whose music inspired them.

Things Havoc liked:  On a cold night in Detroit, in the winter of 1973, a struggling young musician known only as Rodriguez got up on stage in a bar somewhere near the waterfront, and performed music from the two albums he had released several years earlier. Unknown save to a handful of music snobs, heckled by the crowd, and beset by money and shyness troubles, Rodriguez played his last set before a sullen, heckling crowd, thanked them politely for their attention, drew a gun, and shot himself dead right there on the stage.

Such, at least, is one version of the story of Rodriguez, as related to us by a series of interviews with various now middle-aged South Africans who in the late 70s and 80s, participated in the exploding music scene in South Africa. Some tell us that Rodriguez died of a drug overdose, some that he burned himself alive on stage, and other lurid, strange tales born from the fact that Rodriguez, completely unknown here in the United States, was, in South Africa, bigger than Elvis, and yet totally mysterious to them. His music, brought by bootleggers into the sealed society that was Apartheid South Africa, became the driving force of a generation of white South African protestors in the same way that Bob Dylan did for American youth in the 60s. One such South African, who still goes by the name of "Sugar" (drawn from one of Rodriguez' songs), explains to us that in his country, Rodriguez' music was as ubiquitous to him as any other artist that could be named, and that walking into a white liberal house in South Africa, one would expect to see a Rodriguez album sitting right next to the Beatles.

Searching for Sugarman is the story of a search by a handful of these South African music fans, as they sought in the early-mid 90s to determine the story behind this mysterious musical phenomenon, unknown in his own country, whose two albums are still considered some of the finest music ever produced by the handful of people who have heard them, and who seemingly vanished without a trace shortly after completing them. In an age before Google, Wikipedia, or the widespread use of the internet, these people began to search, via contacts with record companies, postings on early internet bulletin boards, and slow piecing together of rumor and story, attempting to understand who Rodriguez was, where his music had come from, and why and how he had died. So unknown was Rodriguez domestically that nobody in the United States even knew that he had become popular in South Africa, and attempts to track down anyone who had even met him vanished into tangled webs of royalty payments and corporate ignorance. Yet doggedly these men continued to search, seeking to know more about the musician that had influenced their lives so heavily.

Searching for Sugarman is a documentary record of this search, what it uncovered, and what resulted from the discoveries they made. To tell you what happens in the turns of this story would be to spoil the point of seeing it, but I can tell you that the documentary untangles this story with amazing dexterity. From Detroit to Cape Town to Los Angeles and back to Detroit again we roam, talking to music fans, to friends of Rodriguez from his recording days, to record executives and journalists picking up the story, and on and on. All throughout the story we learn about Rodriguez himself, the son of Mexican immigrants who worked in backbreaking manual labor in the poorest regions of Detroit, and wrote music nobody (here) heard that was deeply infused with political messages and vignettes from working class life.

Rodriguez' music fills the soundtrack of the picture, and it's damn good music. His voice is a cross between Don Maclean and James Taylor's, a smooth, even voice over music that reminds me strongly of Bob Dylan's best work. Like pretty much every American, I had never heard of Rodriguez in my life, but the film spends a great deal of time with experts and record executives, explaining how revolutionary Rodriguez' sound was, and expressing their utter mystification at his failure to break through in the United States. By the end of it, we feel like experts on this obscure man's music, and I would wager that more than a few of us were inspired to go searching for these nigh-unobtainable albums. I certainly was.

Things Havoc disliked:   This is a strange tale, and it's told well, with many turns that I could predict and some I could not. I will not spoil any of them here, as learning all the things that the researchers learned is half the fun, but I will talk about a subject that stuck with me. Early on, as the South Africans are looking for Rodriguez, they resolve to follow the money trail of royalty payments from South Africa back to the labels in the United States. There, the documentarians meet with a record producer named Clarence Avant, one of the original men who knew Rodriguez and produced his two albums. They confront Avant with questions concerning where all the money from the records ended up, only for him to become extremely defensive, refusing to answer questions about the money, and accusing the filmmakers of headhunting. Later on, one of Rodriguez' relatives suggests that there was no money, that the albums never made money even in South Africa, because piracy and bootlegging soaked up the sales that might otherwise have been made.

Um... excuse me?

These records were released in 1970 and 1971. Their popularity in South Africa commenced about five years later. While there certainly was bootlegging in the 1970s, this was long before we could blame Napster and Bittorrent for all the ills of the music industry. We see hundreds and thousands of perfectly legitimate copies of these albums, vinal, cassette, and CD, in stores and homes all across South Africa. We speak to record labels in South Africa who explain that they paid extravagant royalties to companies in the United States. The albums were both certified platinum by the South African Recording Industry, an award based solely on the number of actual legal sales. And yet when Avant blusters and Rodriguez' relatives wave their hands at piracy, the documentary appears to simply drop the subject, as though that answers everything. The question is never brought up again, and the strong implication that the filmmakers leave us with is that ungrateful music pirates kept Rodriguez from enjoying the fruits of his labors. I've heard some nonsensical statements on piracy proffered by the RIAA and other such groups, but never with such bald-faced gall as the subject is introduced here.

Final thoughts: Honestly though, by the end of this film, even I had forgotten about the piracy issue. The story here is not about piracy or record sales or money lost or won or earned or stolen. The story is about a strange and unique man, and the excellent music he produced, labored over, and believed was forgotten about, only for it to unexpectedly become the voice of a generation he never even imagined. It's one of the finest documentaries I've ever seen, carrying us along a story so strange that I would not have believed it if it hadn't been laid out for me in such an effective way. By the time this story finally ends, we're left with a sense of profound wonder that all these things should have happened, and that people like this should have lived. After weeks of dross, boredom, and teeth-grinding annoyance, it's good to meet people who neither waste my time nor fray my temper, but simply wish to tell me a story of music, art, and the bizarre crapshoot that is 'recognition'. And that this story and not those was the true one is enough to make anyone smile.

So do yourself a favor, and give it a listen. And you might just start searching for Sugar Man yourselves.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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