MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Geek: Searching for Sugar Man

Nominated for an Oscar for 2012 Best Documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, a Sony Pictures Classics release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, is part of a not uncommon subgenre of music documentaries about artists who have a strong cult following but have otherwise faded or disappeared entirely from public view, such as You’re Gonna Miss Me and I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.  Additionally, every pop music documentary in existence cannot help but to feel like This Is Spinal Tap.  The latter was just too knowing and too indelible to push back into the proverbial toothpaste tube of knowledge, and so titters can emerge with the slightest hint of absurdity or possible satire.  But Searching for Sugar Man doesn’t just deserve the Oscar nomination, it deserves to win.  Running 87 minutes, it lulls you into believing—or perhaps even not believing—the story of a few enthusiastic South African fans that attempt to uncover the biography of an American balladeer from the early Seventies called ‘Rodriguez,’ who had a smooth, articulate voice, reminiscent of Jose Feliciano (with his dark glasses, he also looks a lot like Feliciano), and adept recording engineers that brought a detailed complexity and color to his orchestrations.  He is most reminiscent of a blue collar Peter Sarstedt (who was also exceptionally popular in South Africa), spinning out lyrics that, under the oppression of apartheid, South African citizens found particularly inspiring.  He had recorded two albums, and while his former producers—and, thanks to bootleg cassettes, practically all of South Africa—remain incredulous that the albums never hit the big time (many of the songs were too off-color to have played on the radio, and even today, at least one of them would still be bleeped in a couple of places), the music often wavers on a not-ready-for-prime-time cusp, as do the songs and recordings of hundreds of other musicians who dream of being headliners but are lucky if they can fill the cocktail lounge of an airport bar.  But South Africa, where the people speak English but were cut off from the rest of the world during most of the Seventies and Eighties (the last thing anyone in the rest of the world cared about was what Afrikaner kids were rocking to), did not know this, and that is what makes the film so wonderful.  It isn’t just another ‘lost musician’ documentary, it is the epic lost musician documentary, capturing a situation that could only possibly happen once in the history of the world on this scale.  What you have is a cultural structure known as ‘the music business,’ which generally functions in a predictable manner, except, what the film uncovers, is this enormous anomaly that gestated in the days before YouTube, when the Global Village wasn’t the real Global Village it is today.  Without giving away too much more, the reason why the film works so effectively and will likely bring many viewers to tears is that, like any well made epic, it conveys a sweeping narrative that spans continents, climaxing in a cast of thousands, and yet it also explores the personalities of the individuals, so that you end up caring very much about how fate treats them.

 

The DVD is even more of a treat.  Presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback, the story is told after the fact, so the cinematography is glossy and smooth, except when archival and home movie footage is employed.  Much of it is set in Cape Town, and the film, mindful of its themes, makes the city look like an elegant, nurturing oasis nestled against the sea.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is also superb, with a full and compelling dimen­sionality that is present not just in the song recordings, but in the environ­mental settings, as well.  There are optional English and French subtitles.

 

Great documentaries often make great DVDs because of how the supplements can embellish the original feature, and Searching for Sugar Man is no exception.  There is a brief but wonderful 11-minute segment with Rodriguez and director Malik Bendjelloul in front of a live audience.  Not only does Rodriguez play a number, but some of the questions are great fun.  There is also a trailer and a viable 31-minute production featurette that explains how Bendjelloul pieced together the brilliantly designed narrative even though a decade and more had passed since the events it depicts, and, like all beginning filmmakers, he had virtually no money.  Finally, Bendjelloul and Rodriguez supply a commentary track, which goes into more detail both about Bendjelloul putting the movie together (he would have his interviewees talk in the wrong tense to sustain the film’s internal chronology; he also points out, to cash-strapped filmmakers, that the architecture of cities have terrific, free production value) and what has happened since the events in the film to Rodriguez himself.

 

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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