I’m Still Searching for Sugarman

Sunday, September 23, 2012 8:45:06 AM

music, apartheid, South Africa, Malik Bendjelloul, folk music, rodriguez, DOCUMENTARY, Searching for Sugarman

Last week I saw the long-awaiting film Searching for Sugarman. I’d heard about it and read about it but until now I had not had a chance to see the film. There was quite a buzz about the film. Was it a story about South Africa breaking out of apartheid? Or a story about a long lost musician being rediscovered? Was it about they way things were, or how times have changed? I enjoyed the film very much; I went out of it on a real high, sharing my enthusiasm with a pack of other cinema-goers. We emerged from the dark of the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s Leicester Square chatting and buzzing about the film. It has a terrific feel good factor and I don’t want to take away any of that.

Later on however I find that I am not able to answer the question “What was the film about?” I’m not quite sure.

Malik Bendjelloul’s film covers all those bases but covers them superficially, creating many fascinating possibilities and intriguing questions but he seems so overwhelmed by the hugeness of the connecting stores that he does not follow any of them up sufficiently for the film to really say as much as one hopes it to.

The film, which is beautifully shot, opens in gorgeous South Africa, and begins with the extraordinary story how the singer Rodriguez enchanted and inspired several generations of white, mainly Afrikaner, South African youth with his counter-culture folk songs. For them the story seems to end with the report that the singer was dead. Time passes, apartheid falls and two South African music fans, one a journalist, decide to try and find out more about their one time hero. The journey leads to the US music scene and the revelation that although the singer’s music was selling hugely in South Africa, what actually happened to the money once it got to the US company who licensed it, seems distinctly murky. However this is not the big revelation – the real surprise is that the singer Rodriguez is not dead but is very much alive. Then follows the triumphant tour of South Africa.

After that the film doesn’t really know where to go. Mainly because the South Africa tours were in the late 90s and the film runs up the present day. And here chances to really delve into some fascinating stuff seems to be missed.

The South Africa strand of the story is fascinating. I was left wondering how South Africans felt upon eventually discovering that their hero was not a “white” American but was Mexican-American – and if they had any idea how Mexican Americans have been discriminated against in the US? The concert footage from the 1998 tour shows an overwhelmingly white audience – some idea of the reaction of the fans would have been brilliant. The South African subjects present a brief but chilling account of what apartheid-era South Africa was like young white people: not a racist Utopia but a repressive police state that monitored every aspect of their lives. Yet an underground existed, and the singer Rodriguez was unknowingly at the fulcrum of it. I could not help feeling that there was much more to this South African story that could have been teased out, a story that needs to be told, but probably needs a South African film maker to tell it.

As for the US side of the story – which is marginally less riveting – what happened to Rodriguez’s royalties from the South African sales? Had been hoodwinked into signing them away back in the early 70s? Or is there a court case we haven’t been told about? Or is he just not interested in the money?

Even more intriguing, why did Rodriguez fail to make any appreciable impact on the early 70s US music scene? Detroit has never been a musical backwater – on the contrary it has produced some of the greatest and most important music the US has ever known, of nearly all genres. It produced radical acts like the MC5 and the Stooges. Was it Rodriguez’s politics? Yet MC5’s Wayne Kramer has managed to retain his left politics during a long and successful career.

Clearly, his songs are much simpler, rougher and rawer than those of earlier folkies such as Dylan and Cohen. His lyrics are actively radical, leftist. Its very roughness makes it feels less dated, fresher, than most of the counter-culture musical fare of the era sounds to us today. However listening to the albums, the music is somewhat overproduced. It’s possible that the overproduction turned off the proto-punk underground, who might have preferred a rawer guitar sound; while the radical, angry lyrics turned off the popsters.

Was class a factor? The film makes note of the singer’s working class identity, his actively involvement in local politics. In the interviews, he very much self identifies as a worker: going from an auto-worker to a construction worker. Did the singer actively reject the sleaze of the music business?

And race? In an interesting interview the former record company executive who ran Rodriguez’s label at one point says that the singer was unsuccessful since “Latin music wasn’t popular.” Rodriguez’s music is not “Latin” music at all, so one is left wondering and wanting to know more about the cultural invisibility of Mexican-Americans. Neither “black” nor “white,” to the outsider, the Latino Americans seem only to have been written into history in recent years.

It would have been good to know what Rodriguez, his friends and fans think about these questions, and some deeper analysis would have enriched the story altogether.

Still, it’s not the job of the film maker to answer every question, go in every direction. If the aim of the film is to introduce a very interesting singer and fascinating man to new audience, then it has done that. I bought Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact the same day, and I admire the man very much. But there are stronger stories here, stories about bigger issues than one man, and it would have been good to hear them.

I was left wondering why the film was not made by a South African film maker, and I realised that we are still waiting for this film. If it does anything at all, I hope that Searching for Sugarman will encourage a South African to pick up a camera and tell use the story of how South African white youth emerged from apartheid.

©GillianMcIver2012

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