Thursday, 9 August 2012

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Compelling Documentary details the mystery behind Rodriguez, the musical genius who in South Africa became the voice for anti-authoritarian youth and white liberals who opposed the evils of apartheid.

Searching For Sugar Man (2012)

dir. Malik Bendjelloul


Review By Greg Klymkiw

For over 50 years the virulently racist National Party policy of Apartheid in South Africa subjected its indigenous peoples to forced segregation. The resulting horrors must never be forgotten; nor should the struggle of the colonized nation's Black majority to free themselves from the brutal and degrading lifestyle imposed by the minority White rulers.

In the 70s and 80s, there existed an unlikely (and unwitting) hero of the anti-Apartheid movement - a man of almost insurmountable artistic gifts who came to represent a ray of hope and inspiration to the youth of South Africa's "ruling class" - those White Liberal Afrikaners who steadfastly opposed Apartheid and, in fact, rejected the entire atmosphere of fascism, repression and paranoia imposed upon ALL South Africans - white and black.

It is the backdrop of Apartheid that Malik Bendjelloul's glorious feature documentary Searching For Sugar Man uses to present a biographical portrait of the film's primary subject. Bendjelloul, a storyteller par excellence, structures the remarkable movie as a mystery and blends a variety of tools including animation, news reel footage and a multitude of gorgeously lit and composed interview segments to investigate one of the great show business head-scratchers.

'Twas the late 60s, in a land far, far away from South Africa, when a solitary figure became a fixture on the stages of waterfront taverns in working-class Detroit.

Night after night, late into the murky, smoky, boozy darkness permeating these ramshackle, beer-soaked dream palaces, this brilliant young American folk singer, born into a family of poor, hardworking immigrants from Mexico, captured the hearts and minds of those who came to recognize themselves, like mirror images within the evocative lyrics of the man known to them as Rodriguez. He wrote about himself, and in so doing, wrote about everyman. He was their poet laureate, their preacher, their prophet, their confessor. He shared himself with you and you alone, not the world.

A man so gifted, however, must be shared with the wider world and in due time he was discovered. Detroit was not only Motor City, but Motown and soon, he fell into the hands of some very talented Motor City music producers. This resulted in Rodriguez delivering two great albums for Sussex Records - Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971).

The world, alas, did not embrace them. Both albums were huge commercial disasters and Rodriguez was dropped from his label while in the middle of recording a third album (which, sadly, was never finished). Disappearing into the anonymity and obscurity of manual labour and a "normal" life, Rodriguez quickly became a has-been who never was. This young man, who had been touted as the next Bob Dylan quickly became "Rodriguez Who?".

Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his work had been released into the repressive regime of South Africa, whereupon both albums shockingly went through the roof. In a land ruled by a succession of iron-fisted fascist maniacs like Botha, Rodriguez spoke to a new generation who wished to extricate themselves from the sins of their fathers.

In South Africa, Rodriguez did indeed become bigger than the Beatles, Bob Dylan and remarkably, Elvis Presley.

His songs often depicted the plight of the oppressed, the exploited, the working class and the poor. Rodriguez became synonymous with fighting for what was right and his songs were both anthemic and iconic amongst the Afrikaner youth of South Africa. Smothered by the "establishment" in the Totalitarian-like regime of South Africa, young Afrikaners with minds of their own embraced this fresh, passionate voice.

And yet, something didn't sit well with his multitude of South African fans. Who was he? Where did he come from? Where, on Earth, was he? The only thing they knew for sure, or at least assumed, is that he didn't come to perform in South Africa for the same reasons other artists didn't (and why other countries imposed cultural, industrial and financial boycotts):

The world was telling South Africa that Apartheid would not be tolerated.

An island unto itself, South Africa ignored worldwide demands to establish human rights for ALL its citizens, and within its hermetically sealed borders, thousands upon thousands of South African youth, in protest and solidarity bought the Rodriguez albums, listened to them on the radio and demanded his songs be performed by live cover bands. Sales continued to skyrocket - especially when sad news filtered beyond the government-controlled media that Rodriguez was dead.

Reports were conflicted. At first they heard that Rodriguez had been onstage performing for an unappreciative audience. He waited for their silence, played one last tune, then pulled out a gun and blew his brains out onstage. However, news surfaced that Rodriguez had indeed NOT shot himself.

On stage, he doused himself with gasoline and immolated himself in front of the shocked audience and in South Africa, martyrdom for Rodriguez was not far behind.

Years later, long after the fall of Apartheid, Rodriguez was still popular as ever and two of his biggest fans in South Africa embarked on an arduous journey to seek the truth. It is this journey, a fascinating blend of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and "All the President's Men", that drives Searching For Sugar Man right out of the park. This expertly written, edited and directed story of investigation and devotion, not only exposes truth, but presents a story that is as uplifting as it is sad, as thrilling as it is profoundly and deeply moving.

And then, there's the music of Rodriguez. Bendjelloul does not skimp here and this dazzling tale of determination, revelation and hope embraces us with filmmaking of the highest order.

The movie must be seen on a big screen. Sound, image and story demand a bigger than life viewing experience. And when you're done watching, you will, like I did - float out of the theatre, wander straight to the nearest purveyor of CDs and vinyl and snatch up as much Rodriguez as you can possibly find.

And then, like those Afrikaner youth who so long ago sought to extricate themselves from an evil they had no use for, you will play your Rodriguez again and again and again.

And you will feel elation of the highest and most spiritual order.

"Searching For Sugarman" is currently in platform release via Canada's Mongrel Media and Sony Pictures Classics in the USA. In Toronto, you will be able to see it at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. For tickets and info, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.