Rodriguez

Searching for Sugar Man

Nobody was surprised last week when Daniel-Day Lewis took home the Best Actor Oscar for Lincoln. It was an accomplished performance by an actor working in a league of his own. But another reason the award seemed so very unsurprising is the fact that a well-known actor was rewarded for embodying a familiar real-life figure. Awards ceremonies have made something of a habit out of rewarding actors for portraying famous real-life persons. One of my major gripes about Philip Seymour Hoffman taking home the gold for Capote in 2006 was the fact that Hoffman, who had never been nominated before, had previously lifted so many original characters off the page and gave them incredible depth (of course, I’m referring to Twister). But the face of a known actor embodying another known face functions like a magnet of praise when accomplished convincingly. The opposite can be said of non-fiction filmmaking. The critical and box office success of Searching for Sugar Man marks the culmination of a trend that’s seemingly particular to mainstream documentary filmmaking: the use of the medium to resurrect or elevate a previously under-appreciated or forgotten personality.

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Searching for Sugar Man

Last year’s much-buzzed-about documentary Searching For Sugar Man told the story of Rodriguez, a talented though obscure folk musician from Detroit who put out two very poorly-selling albums in the early seventies and then disappeared. Doesn’t sound like much of a story, right? Talented musicians fail to hit it big all the time, so what’s the big deal? Well, it turns out, as Rodriguez spent the last few decades performing manual labor in obscurity here in the States, in South Africa he was a best-selling artist and cultural icon on par with Elvis and The Beatles. The thing is, nobody there knew that he was a nobody over here, and nobody here knew he was a somebody over there, until a South African journalist put two and two together and set up a big show for Rodriguez in his home country. Thus, a documentary was born. The other notable thing about Rodriguez’s story is just how good the small handful of songs he wrote were. Anyone who worked with him talks about his songwriting like he’s a talent on par with a Bob Dylan or a Paul Simon, but for some reason his releases never connected with an American audience, so instead of getting tons of new material from him over the past few decades like we have from Dylan and Simon, with Rodriguez we’ve got nothing but silence. It kind of feels like we got screwed. There might be a pot of musical gold at the end of this […]

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