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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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“I was 15 when I first watched Sally Hardesty escape into the back of a pickup truck, covered in blood and cackling like a goddamn witch. All of her friends were dead. She had been kidnapped, tortured and even forced to feed her own blood to her cannibalistic captors’ impossibly shriveled patriarch. Being new to the horror genre, I was sure she was going to die. It had been a few months since I survived a violent sexual assault, where I subsequently ran from my assailant, tripped, fell and fought like hell. I crawled home with bloody knees, makeup-stained cheeks and a new void in both my mind and heart. My sense of safety, my ability to trust others, my willingness to form new relationships and my love of spending time with people I cared about were all taken from me. It wasn’t until I found the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that something clicked. It was Sally’s strength, and her resilience. It was watching her survive blows to the head from a hammer. It was watching her break free from her bonds and burst through a glass window. It was watching her get back up after she’d been stabbed. It was watching her crawl into the back of a truck, laughing as it drove away from Leatherface. She was the last one to confront the killer, and live. I remember sitting in front of the TV and thinking, There I am. That’s me.”
~ Lauren Milici On “The Final Girl”

“‘Thriller’ enforced its own reality principle; it was there, part of the every commute, a serenade to every errand, a referent to every purchase, a fact of every life. You didn’t have to like it, you only had to acknowledge it. By July 6, 1984, when the Jacksons played the first show of their ‘Victory’ tour, in Kansas City, Missouri, Jacksonism had produced a system of commodification so complete that whatever and whoever was admitted to it instantly became a new commodity. People were no longer comsuming commodities as such things are conventionally understood (records, videos, posters, books, magazines, key rings, earrings necklaces pins buttons wigs voice-altering devices Pepsis t-shirts underwear hats scarves gloves jackets – and why were there no jeans called Bille Jeans?); they were consuming their own gestures of consumption. That is, they were consuming not a Tayloristic Michael Jackson, or any licensed facsimile, but themselves. Riding a Mobius strip of pure capitalism, that was the transubstantiation.”
~ Greil Marcus On Michael Jackson