Searching For Sugar Man

Searching For Sugar Man

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Band Called Death

June saw the buzzed-about release of not one, but two documentaries examining talented but underappreciated and not-at-all famous musicians: Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom, about the careers of female back-up singers, and Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death, about an African-American, Detroit-based proto-punk bank who recorded music and broke up before The Sex Pistols initiated any anarchy whatsoever in the UK. These two documentaries are hardly the first non-fiction films to focus on the lives and extraordinary-ordinary struggles of marginal musical subjects: Sacha Gervasi’s popular Anvil! The Story of Anvil was perhaps the first really visible instantiation of this subgenre, which reached its height when Searching for Sugar Man struck awards show and box office gold, resurrecting the career of long-forgotten singer-songwriter Rodriguez in the process. Back in March, I argued contemporary mainstream documentaries seem to be heavily preoccupied with resurrecting exceptional but buried personalities, while mainstream narrative films do the opposite. Christopher Campbell tackled a similar subject in regard to music docs, but placed their appeal in more direct terms: we’re drawn to such docs because they essentially tell a Cinderella Story. It’s clear that films like these are compelling, entertaining, headline-ready, and can often be damned funny (and it doesn’t hurt that they typically have killer soundtracks). But perhaps one of the more interesting, little discussed aspects of these documentaries is what they ultimately say about the huge gaps we take for granted in ways we think about American popular music.

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PH-JOURNEY

On separate occasions in the documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, newly hired Journey frontman Arnel Pineda describes his life as a “fairy tale” and a “Cinderella story.” It’s better described as a globalization of the American Dream, a kind of “Mr. Deeds Goes on Tour” narrative where Deeds is now a Filipino discovered somewhat randomly through the world-shrinking magic of the Internet, specifically YouTube. In one of the most distinct moments of the film, a concertgoer admits her preference that the band’s new singer “was from here,” as if outsourcing has ever been viewed as an issue in pop music. What that young woman clearly really meant, in spite of her insistence that she’s not racist, is that she wishes he was not Asian. And it’s this racial aspect of Pineda’s story that is one of the more intriguing parts of the film. Not only is the choice of a Filipino singer, regardless of his vocal talent, met with bigoted criticism around the web (“the Internet giveth and taketh away,” director Ramona S. Diaz told me in a recent interview), but there’s also a kind of reverse racially charged phenomenon at play in the fact that suddenly Journey is a huge hit with Filipino Americans, who are now a large percentage of the band’s live audience just because of Pineda’s nationality.

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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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Best Documentary Feature

At first, it seems like this is an odd year for Best Documentary Feature. A lot of the early favorites weren’t nominated, and some of them didn’t even make the shortlist. I’m thinking of Central Park Five and Bully, and to an extent The House I Live In. However, in spite of how unexpected it feels, that almost always happens. If anything, this is a strange but predictable year for the category. We have a front-runner, even if the list appears to be diverse in content and full of impressively affecting films. Incidentally, watch the winner. This year’s fiction nominees include two films based on prior documentary Oscar-winners. Kon-Tiki in Best Foreign Language Film is based on the journey of Thor Heyerdahl to Polynesia, the documentary of which won in 1952. The Sessions, meanwhile, is based on Jessica Yu’s short doc winner Breathing Lessons. Could we see another Oscar-nominated adaptation from this list? I’m looking at you, Searching for Sugar Man. Here are the nominees with my prediction in red:

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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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Dooley Wilson in Casablanca

A few weeks back, Matthew Perpetua of Buzzfeed wrote a post arguing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should consider an award for “Best Use of an Old Song,” citing the memorable instances of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” in Silver Linings Playbook and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in Moonrise Kingdom as possible contenders in this imaginary category. I could not agree more. It’s been a long time since a Best Original Song or Best Original Score winner made a major cultural impact, and the Music Supervisors who find the best existing music (within legal and budgetary constraints) for the greatest effect deserve their day in the spotlight for making us think about old songs in a new memorable audio-visual context or introducing us to great music that we didn’t know was always out there. Here are the reasons why such a category doesn’t already exist.

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Welcome back to This Week In Discs! As always, if you see something you like, click on the image to buy it. Hard Romanticker The streets of Tokyo are awash in blood and attitude in this tale of warring thugs battling for supremacy and revenge. An old woman is killed during a burglary, and her hoodlum grandson mistakenly believes Gu (Shota Matsuda) was behind the murder. Gu finds himself targeted, but he’s far too cool to run and instead finds time to cause some carnage of his own. This is a hard and brutal film that finds both cruelty and black humor in the lives of these punks. No one escapes unscathed, and women fare extremely poorly, but the film makes an effort to take the romance out of these junior yakuza’s lifestyles. Artsploitation Films is still a young label, but their third (and best) release continues to get everything right. In addition to the fantastic film they’ve included a booklet featuring two in depth essays on the film. Also, while this may only matter to nerdy collectors like myself, they’re also wisely numbering their releases on the spine a la Criterion and Drafthouse Films. [Extras: Trailer, collector’s booklet]

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Pitch of the Week is a regular feature in which we pitch a movie to Hollywood. These are not original ideas but rather desires for adaptations, remakes, sequels, biopics, films based on true stories and other works involving pre-existing or real-life source material. It’s a chance to highlight things besides movies, albeit in a way that we’re able to tie it to potential movies. The inspiration for this inaugural pitch comes from part of an article titled “Everyday Royals” in the latest issue of Mental_Floss magazine (Dec. 2012), which revisits an interesting news story from five years ago about an alleged heir to the throne of France. The interesting thing about this descendent, whose name is Balthazar Napoleon de Bourbon, is that he’s Indian and can hardly speak the language of the people he’s in line to rule over. A lawyer from Bhopal, he was discovered by Prince Michael of Greece, who wrote a historical novel that traces a lineage from Henry VI to the unlikely but potentially rightful monarch. From the magazine: In doing some family research, Prince Michael, who also hails from the Bourbon clan, discovered that a swashbuckling nephew of Henry VI named Jean de Bourbon had worked his way to India. Jean had fled France after killing a nobleman in a duel. But on his journey, he was kidnapped by pirates, sold as a slave, and served in an Ethiopian army before eventually making his way to Goa, India. From there, he met Mughal king Akbar and served in […]

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Last night, at a special event in conjunction with the AFI FEST, the nominees for the 2013 Cinema Eye Honors were announced. And once again, the titles contending for the ten feature categories, all of which focus solely on nonfiction films (to make up for the Oscars’ minimal recognition), represent the year’s best in documentaries. As someone who professionally concentrates on docs elsewhere, I tend to feel kinda useless or redundant when Cinema Eye names its nominees, because now when someone asks me what’s great this year I can just point to their list of 31 features. Of course, some of these films are only up for specific honors, like those for original music score and graphic design, and may not be quite as necessary as the six up for the top award or the 10 nominated for the Audience Choice Prize (which sadly, for publicity-sake, lacks a Justin Bieber movie like last year). Also, I could name a bunch of exceptional docs that haven’t been recognized, such as This is Not a Film, The House I Live In, Under African Skies, Beware of Mr. Baker, Last Call at the Oasis, The Queen of Versailles, Girl Model (though its directors are up for Downeast) and The Invisible War. Still, I’m very excited that one of my top three nonfiction films of the year, The Imposter, is one of the most-nominated titles, while I’m even more ecstatic that the CEH could bring more attention to brilliant, lesser-known works like Only the […]

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The Queen of Versailles

As October slowly winds to a close, the air turns crisper, the leaves go red(der?), and the mailboxes of film critics everywhere find themselves stuffed quite fuller, as we enter into (drum roll, please), Official Awards Season. As we approach the bevy of awards shows and spectacles, it’s time to start rolling out the first wave of big-time nominations. Today, that wave includes documentaries. The 28th International Documentary Association Awards have today announced their five nominations for their Feature category, and there are certainly some recognizable names among the picks. Most notably, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, and Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War all made the cut, joined by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon’s The Central Park Five and Peter Gerdehag’s Women With Cows. Versailles and Sugar Man have both consistently played on the festival circuit this past year, and Invisible War has frequently been discussed when it comes to awards consideration (though our own Chris Campbell presupposes that Sugar Man is an Oscar lock). But who should win? Who is worthy of such love? Fortunately for all of you dear readers, we’ve reviewed three of the five nominated docs (can’t win ‘em all), so get familiar with our opinions after the break.

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One of the most difficult Oscar categories for pundits (let alone regular folk) to predict is the one for feature documentary. And this year more than ever it’s going to be hard to pick the five nominees, because changes to the rules of qualification and voting have given the race an extra element of complication: there is no precedent for how things turn out with this particular selection process in place. In a way, it’s a wide-open field with no certainty that higher-grossing films or more issue-oriented titles or discernibly cinematic works have the greater chance at a nod. Some expected the number of contenders to be cut in half as a result of the new rules; instead it grew, much to the chagrin of branch leader Michael Moore. And until the annual shortlist narrows them down to 15, we have 130 eligible films to choose from. But most of those docs aren’t plausible nominees. Many of the kind that Moore gets upset about for paying for a screen rental to qualify aren’t likely to go all the way. So they qualified. Now they have to be good and popular enough for people to notice.

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Gird your loins, Los Angeles, the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival is coming, and this time, the fest is bringing strippers with them. Lots and lots of (cinematic) strippers. The festival has already announced four titles, which include the North American Premiere of Woody Allen‘s To Rome With Love as the festival’s Opening Night Film, along with Gala screenings for Benh Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lorene Scafaria‘s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Ava DuVernay‘s Middle of Nowhere, but it’s high time LAFF unveiled their full slate. And what a slate! As announced today, the festival will close with the World Premiere of Steven Soderbergh‘s Magic Mike and will also feature the World Premiere of Alex Kurtzman‘s People Like Us. Other titles announced today of note include Sundance favorites The Queen of Versailles, Teddy Bear, The House I Live In, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Robot and Frank, and Searching for Sugar Man. Additional titles that pop out include Emmett Malloy’s Big Easy Express, Alejandro Brugués‘ Juan of the Dead, Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot, and Joshua Sanchez’s Four. LAFF also runs a variety of special programs, including Community and Retro Screenings, a crammed slate of short films, and their trademark “Eclectic Mix” of music videos. After the break, you can check out the full line-up for this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, along with synopses for all features and a full list of all shorts and music videos playing at the fest. LAFF runs from Thursday, June 14 to Sunday, June 24. Passes […]

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I had never even heard of Sixto Rodriguez, the subject matter of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, let alone had interest in his music. Born in Detroit in 1942, the man who would become known simply as Rodriguez was a singer/songwriter some compared to Bob Dylan, not as mellow but with the same lyrical talents and a wicked handle on the guitar. Rodriguez never found fame in the United States. Two albums released through Sussex Records in the early ’70s hit brick walls with critics and audiences, and his name quickly plunged into obscurity. He never found his musician’s footing here, but you know who really loves Rodriguez? South Africa. That is the core of Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary, how one society’s rock and roll prince can be another society’s street sweeper. Rodriguez took local handyman jobs in Detroit while his albums blew up in Cape Town, one of many artists and philosophical politicos who sparked something in that culture that would eventually bubble up into the end of Apartheid. Rodriguez didn’t know he was a man of change to those people. Likewise, the people of South Africa had no idea who Rodriguez was, how successful – or not given the matter at hand – he was outside of their country, or even if the man was still alive.

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Earlier this week, our own Cole Abaius announced the first wave of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival‘s film lineup. That assault was impressive enough, complete with lots of compelling picks in the World Narrative Feature Competition, World Documentary Feature Competition
, and Viewpoints sections, but today’s release of the final feature film sections is a whole other volley of firepower. With today’s announcement of their Spotlight, Cinemania, Special Screenings, and the 2012 Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, the fest has completed their feature announcements – and made me start to wonder if I should try to hit Gotham for the festival, running April 18 – 29. Picks that stand out to me already include the delightful 2 Days in New York, Chicken With Plums, Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey, The Giant Mechanical Man, Headshot, Lola Versus, Take This Waltz, Your Sister’s Sister, and Sleepless Night. Check out the full list of films (along with Tribeca-provided synopses) after the break.

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Brace yourself, SXSW attendees and fans, we’re about to hit you with a metric ton of new information. Leading off with the big stuff! SXSW has just added a number of new films to be screened, including a fistful of Sundance hits, including Safety Not Guaranteed, Sleepwalk With Me, Shut Up and Play the Hits, Searching for Sugar Man, and Chasing Ice. That news alone should excite you, but it comes bundled up with still more, including the complete conference line-up, along with the news that all screening and panel dates and times are finally live. Meaning? If you’re a psychotic planner like me, you can get cracking on crafting your schedule for maximum fun and consumption. I’m frankly afraid to look at the schedule just yet, because it will send me spiraling into a fit of planning that I might not emerge from for many hours. But you? You can start planning now. After the break, check out the full line-up for all conference panels, along with descriptions on all of today’s just-announced film titles.

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Sundance is many things – cold temperatures, snow, memorizing the shuttle schedule, training your body to take two hour “naps” each night, Simon Baker stopping your delirious self from walking into on-coming traffic on Main Street (a true, and embarrassing, story), but most importantly – it’s about movies. The Sundance Film Festival is the first big film festival of the year and as such, it never fails to set the bar high with standout programming from premiere features to moving documentaries to midnight scare-a-thons. With an impressive (and at times overwhelming) slate of films to choose from, I narrowed down the films that seem to be getting the most buzz already and are popping up on people’s “must-see” lists. Of course there will probably be a film or two here that do not live up to expectations while there is also a good chance that I have left something out that will end up being a standout at this year’s festival, but it is that unpredictability that’s part of the fun. Stay tuned to FSR as Kate Erbland and I head to Park City this weekend to take in as many of these titles as we can and report back on whether they live up to the hype and what should stay on your must-see lists as these films (fingers crossed) get picked up for distribution over the next eleven days. A mix of features and documentaries, comedies and horror, this list features both actors and filmmakers returning to Sundance and […]

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published: 11.21.2014
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published: 11.21.2014
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published: 11.19.2014
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published: 11.19.2014
B-, C


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