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.