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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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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas