The Triumph & Tragedy of “Searching for Sugar Man”

sugar1Life is full of dreams unrealised, stories that don’t end well-  realities that fail to measure up to the pomp and myth of movies, so its somewhat invigorating when life does indeed equal movie fantasy. Last week I watched Searching for Sugar Man streaming on Amazon Prime and have found myself thinking about it ever since. This documentary is a remarkable piece of film-making, particularly for music fans, and is at heart an uplifting story about the triumph of art and the human spirit, of vindication and victory. Its extremely well-made, finely constructed, well edited.  Its subject is something of a modern-day fairy tale, but there is a cautionary darkness surrounding it, both in the film itself and the story behind it.

In 2006, Swedish film-maker Malik Bendjelloul had been backpacking around South Africa in search of ideas for documentaries and happened upon a record store in South Africa where he met the stores proprietor, Stephen Segerman, who told him a remarkable story about a singer-songwriter named Rodriguez who had been a hugely popular, albeit mysterious, figure in the country’s apartheid-era, and Segerman’s later quest to discover the truth about him that took years to accomplish.

The story that Bendjelloul had discovered  was a great one, certainly as far as he wanted to tell it.  Discovered singing in a seedy bar in Detroit by two music producers in 1968, Sixto Rodriguez was something of a working-class poet, a guy working as a construction labourer by day and singing his self-penned songs by night (there is of course an inherent romance in that, like something from a TV Movie Of The Week). The producers were incredibly impressed by what they heard, felt they’d stumbled upon the Next Big Thing, the next Dylan in fact. They introduced themselves to the shy, evasive Rodriguez (he’d meet them on street corners rather than at houses, for instance) and together they worked on recording an album. This first album, called Cold Fact, was released in 1970,  a collection of folksy, socially engaged songs with rich melodies that somehow failed to find an audience. Undeterred by this setback, a second album, Coming to Reality, was released the following year but again sold badly resulting in the record label dumping Rodriguez. His hopes of a music career over, the Mexican singer-songwriter abandoned his music and turned to his labouring job in construction to raise his family, promptly disappearing into the last decades of the 20th century, his songs and two albums soon forgotten.  Just another singer who failed to make it; there must be thousands of similar stories. Actors who never get the lucky break, authors who never get their work in print. Sad, but that’s life.

coldfactBut then something rather strange occurred- a copy of Cold Fact found its way across the world to apartheid-era South Africa. Rumour has it an American girl had the record with a few other vinyl albums that she took when she flew over to be with her boyfriend, who listened to the album and then played it for his own circle of friends. Soon word-of-mouth made the album hugely popular among the white liberal classes, who found something galvanising in the songs anti-authoritarian lyrics. Copies of the album were pressed in South Africa and sold as many as half a million copies, despite being banned from the radio. Rodriguez became “more famous than Elvis” in South Africa, although the man himself remained a mysterious figure- the country cut off from the Outside World, no one could find any biographical info about him at all in those pre-internet days, although it was widely assumed he was some big star back in America. A story later emerged that he was dead; had in fact died onstage in a mysterious suicide.

So years passed- fast forward to the 1990s, and a very different, post-Apartheid South Africa. Stephen Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom started investigating into the truth about the mysterious Rodriguez, to find out about the singer and his music. Who was this singer, where was he from, was the story of his death indeed true? Starting with just the slim info on the decades-old record sleeve artwork (ambiguous song credits to both a Sixto Rodrigues and a Jesus Rodriguez) they tried to follow the money but it seemed to get them nowhere (the fact that Rodriguez never seemed to earn any royalties from those South African hit records only adds to the sense of injustice). After so many years there seemed no leads, until  going back to the records and deciphering the lyrics from the Cold Fact album they found clues leading to them to far-away Detroit and the singer living there in obscurity. Incredulous, they learned that the two albums so beloved in South Africa had been utterly ignored and ultimately forgotten in America, and that their hero Rodriguez had retired from music decades ago to tough out the hard life of a construction hand and raise a family as best he could in that blighted city. The two South Africans brought Rodriguez to their home country to a hero’s welcome and an emotionally-charged sell-out concert playing his music to adoring fans, finally achieving the validation denied all those years ago.

Bendjelloul was fascinated by the story and it led him to spend the next several years making the film Searching for Sugar Man. With a soundtrack of Rodriguez’s songs and structured  first as a mystery and then culminating with its one-in-a-million comeback victory with footage of Rodriguez’ victorious concert,  its a modern fairy tale, an impossible-but-true story, suffused with a dry commentary on fame and celebrity and how the music industry uses and dismisses talent. Frustrated by Rodriguez’ shyness and awkwardness on-camera, Bendjelloul turns it to his advantage,  maintaining the singers sense of mystery by instead having information imparted by the singers grown-up daughters. Rodriguez maintains his air of distance and nobility, an urban poet whose voice has been ignored by an ignorant, oblivious world until now.  The film feels faintly manipulative, Bendjelloul knowing what tricks to pull in what he chooses to reveal and when, but its certainly a joyous and rather cathartic experience. Everyone loves a comeback against the odds.

It is indeed a remarkable impossible-but-true tale, but it isn’t all of the truth. Bendjelloul’s film infers that once dumped by his record company, Rodriguez languished in obscurity for all those years until discovered by Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom, but in truth, Rodriguez had a further brush with fame in 1979. His albums were successful enough in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s to get the singer two tours over there. It may have been a transitory thing (the second tour of 1981 would be the last) but its enough to dispel the myth that the singer was totally forgotten. The omission exaggerates both the sense of injustice and the victory, so its obvious why it was done.

Searching For Sugarman

The documentary, released in 2012, went on to become a huge success and eventually would win a BAFTA and the Academy Award for best documentary feature.  Yet the following year, the Oscar-winning film-maker Bendjelloul committed suicide,  jumping in front of a train in the Stockholm underground system. He was just 36 years old, his death shocking all who knew him.

I’d watched Searching for Sugar Man only days before, had since read some more about Rodriguez and listened to his two albums (thank you Youtube), and then I’d stumbled upon the obituary of the film-maker who had made the film.  Of course it didn’t make sense; suicides are seldom rational events, mysteries to friends and loved ones, nevermind strangers. But I have to wonder, is it some kind of tragic post-note/amendment to the films own examination of the nature of fame and celebrity? Following the films great success… well, the common view would have it that Bendjelloul had reached the top of his profession, with all sorts of opportunities and possibilities ahead of him. How much did the attention, the fame and the pressure to follow on with further success affect him? We will of course will never know and any conjecture is utterly redundant. Its enough that Bendjelloul leaves behind one award-winning film, that has warmed and informed people the world over. Its commentary about fame and celebrity is inevitably overshadowed by the tragic events afterwards but to me that adds further poignancy to it. I am reminded that it is inferred at least that for all those years without fame or attention to his music, Rodriguez lived a fine and rewarding life anyway. The later validation of his music and reward is surely very nice but its hardly everything- in comparison its likely nothing at all, but is a remarkable story all the same.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

AMAZING-SPIDERMAN-2There’s a point early on in this film, where Spidey is swinging around, joins a police convoy to halt a robbery and is wise-cracking away with the same high-octane energy and wit as the onscreen delirious stunts and effects wizardry, that I really felt they had cracked it. This was the hero I used to love back in the 1970s reading all those weekly UK reprints of the 1960s original classics.  Pete Parker may have been a bit of a nerd/geek loner  with troubles and woes aplenty (even if he did really get the girl, which we real-life nerds/geeks rarely did) , but once he donned that red and blue costume he was off having fun, doing good, living every young boys dream. Spider-Man has always been an escapist fantasy, a super-hero romp with teen angst but loads of exciting adventure. The Daily Bugle and most of its readership may have thought of the web-slinger as a vigilante and troublemaker, but we readers knew better. He was doing good, and free of his Pete Parker persona/life troubles, as Spidey he was having a ball while he was doing it. And damn if the first twenty minutes of this film don’t just nail it to perfection. Its great. But then they have to spoil it by adding the most uninteresting and downright annoying villains you could imagine, whilst shoving in the most shockingly blatant Sony product-placements just about everywhere (even throwing in a Sony laptop into a flashback sequence of a time when, er, did laptops even exist?).

But the villains kill it, which is ironic as they apparently take centre-stage in the next film, The Sinister Six. I mean, come on, a Robo-Rhino? Another villain like Spiderman 3’s Sandman, here Electro, that isn’t really a bad man rather than a victim of ill-luck? What’s wrong with bad guys being, like, genuinely evil/ bad to the bone? Is this some kind of modern-day PC thing, bad guys can’t really be all-bad? And how is it that after so many attempts, not once have any of these films done the Green Goblin justice? I loved the character in the original comic, he was Spidey’s nemesis, like Dr Who’s Daleks or Superman’s Lex Luthor. He was evil, crazed, egomanical… never was he a guy in a military suit of powered armour  or a teen green with envy. I don’t know, maybe you just can’t translate these guys to the silver screen.  Or maybe only Marvel Studios really knows how to do it. I still think that translating those 1960s stories and characters into the modern-day world doesn’t really work, and that updating them into our world betrays them somehow, loses their original magic. There is a reason that Richard Donner’s Superman had an origin of midwest 1940s Americana; it faithfully translated the characters depression-era origins, the non-cynical simpler days of an America long gone. Man of Steel brought the character to our times and it lost all its charm. That seems to be happening to Spider-Man.

But anyway, I’m starting to sound like some kind of crazy nerd having a geekasm. Fortunately I’ve got two weighty Marvel Ominbus volumes (one of the Lee/Ditko run, the other a big slice of the Lee/Romita run) of The Amazing Spider-Man to retreat to, and try to forget these last five attempts at bringing him to the silver screen ever happened.

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

clawRe-watching this last night only cemented my opinion that Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of the very best British horror films. It may not be the most famous -certainly the best Hammer films have always been more popular and likely always will- but there is a dark undercurrent that elevates Claw above most British horror.  It also forms a rather notable (albeit unintended) horror trilogy with 1968’s Witchfinder General and 1973’s The Wicker Man either side of it- three of the most haunting horrors ever made, sharing themes of Paganism and Witchcraft, and threatened Christianity, with Claw perhaps the most perverse of the three in how it portrays the seduction of the innocent. Its an undeniably disturbing piece of work that surpasses the limitations of its budget, at least until reaching its climax.

The film feels genuinely authentic- it looks utterly gorgeous (the work of cinematographer Dick Bush who also filmed Hammer’s Twins of Evil), the locations and sets are convincing and eerily moody- it looks like a far more ambitious and higher-budgeted film than it really is. Some of the location footage measures up very well against even Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. For me, the best horror films are all about atmosphere rather than gore, and Claw is particularly brilliant at this, really evoking the period setting and maintaining an atmosphere of brooding menace throughout, heightened by a creepy score that worms its way under your skin. There is something tangible about its sense of place and time lacking in, say, those Hammer films with a similar setting.

claw1The story is fairly simple, only complicated by it actually being a combination of three separate stories (giving it an unnerving, disjointed feel that elevates the strangeness of the narrative). In 17th century rural England, a farm labourer (Barry Andrews) ploughing a field uncovers remains of a devilish skull, complete with a perfectly preserved human eye starring back at him, as if its actually aware of him. The shaken labourer enlists the advice of the Judge (Patrick Wymark), taking him to the field for his opinion but the remains have disappeared, upon which the Judge discounts the labourers tale.  However, the unearthing clearly triggers unnatural occurrences, and particularly odd behaviour amongst the children of the village,  their young innocent minds evidently corrupted by a demonic presence, their games in abandoned church ruins out in the woods becoming increasingly sexual and violent, culminating in rape and murder.

claw2The beautiful Linda Hayden is excellent as the Satanic Cults young leader, the bewitched Angel Blake intent on returning her demonic master to corporeal form by sacrificing others. The scene where she undresses in church to seduce the village Reverend is a remarkable confrontation between the forces of Good and Evil, the sacred and the profane, that must have likely concerned film censors of the day. Its the films stand-out scene and is an erotically-charged moment that is quite chilling. Hayden is particularly good at playing a sultry seductress one moment and a naive innocent the next, as having failed to corrupt the priest she then feigns shame as she soon after accuses the Reverend of attacking and abusing her. Its a stand-out performance throughout the film and I am amazed that she didn’t become a major actress.

Eventually the ambition of the film proves its undoing- the conclusion simply cannot measure up to what it wants to be with such a limited budget and production- but its what leads up to that conclusion that makes the film such a great horror film. Indeed, I think its superior to both Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. Why aren’t British film-makers making more films like this?  Here we are four decades later and there is still nothing quite like it.

 

Riddick (2013)


riddick1Riddick
is a fascinating proposition. Pitch Black was an original film (unusual in itself these days) that came out of nowhere to great success, at least on home video, where word-of-mouth managed to gain the film a second-wind financially, meriting an eventual sequel. Unfortunately that sequel was as overblown and pretentious as its title, The Chronicles of Riddick, although that said, it made a commendable attempt at original world-building with a gothic look straight out of Lynch’s Dune. Having become the very antithesis of the original, the second film was deemed a critical and financial failure, and that seemed to be that for the character and a franchise.

But Vin Diesel’s anti-hero Riddick remains an original and enduring character, and nearly ten years later we have another movie (take heart, fellow Dredd fans, there is yet hope!). And here is the fascinating part- the title itself is perhaps indicative of the films’ approach; Riddick is simple and stark minus any pretensions of its epic predecessor, and so it is lean and mean, costing less than $40 million to make in comparison to something close to the $120 million that Chronicles cost. You have to admire film-makers who listen to the fans and act on what they have to say, because its evident in how the film returns to the roots of Pitch Black that such corrective action has been taken.

Riddick reminds me of the best stories from Heavy Metal magazine in its 1970s heyday; heavy in style and hardware with a hard adult approach in its sensibilities, much akin to Alien, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior and the original Robocop. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Riddick is approaching any of those films in quality but it does share with those films an inherent, integral self-logic of purpose. Alien was a silly monster-in-space movie elevated by incredible production design and realistic, life-worn middle-aged characters, in which the steam-drenched, haunted-house corridors of the post-2001 space ship somehow made sense. Blade Runner‘s central premise (making superior artificial humans without any way of actually identifying them) is nonsensical but in its grimy, rain-saturated city it has a reality beyond its central proposition with its fascinating investigations regards death and humanity. Both films are violent, edgy and adult, traits further exampled in the brutal  dystopian future of The Road Warrior or in Robocop’s corporate satire. Its rock and roll science fiction of the senses, decried by literary purists but damned effective film-making nonetheless. They may not have been based on Heavy Metal comic-strips but they all feel as though they could have been.

riddick2So we have Riddick. After that bloated second film Chronicles I really didn’t expect very much from this, but you know how low-expectations somehow have the opposite effect, raising your sense of enjoyment? Well, I think I enjoyed this film more than I should have. Its low budget goes pretty far, and while its hardly a high-concept movie, it works. Riddick is left marooned on another hostile planet, and the set-up for this post-Chronicles turnaround is the only real false step, as the film attempts via flashback to establish an explanation/continuity that feels awkward as it refers back to the second film. This may work better in the extended cut on Blu-ray, but I saw the film on a HD stream via Amazon Prime so can’t comment on that. But anyway, Riddick is on the planet struggling to survive, and after several weeks (months?) finds a more habitable region and an abandoned outpost. Figuring the bounty on his head is the biggest pull, he sets off an emergency beacon announcing his identity, and sure enough two rival bounty teams fly in looking for his head. But soon all of them have more urgent dangers pressing on them, as a stormy rainy season sets an army of amphibian monsters onto them, leaping the film back into original Pitch Black territory. Its simple and, at its best, direct- in a similar way to how Dredd worked so well, it uses the limitations of its budget to strip the film down to its core fundamentals and make the best of them.

No doubt some fans, and particularly those fond of the second film, will be disappointed by a perceived  lack of ambition, in not pursuing the world-building set-up by the second film. Maybe a fourth film will return to add some closure to that as Riddick works on his revenge. I don’t know if a fourth film is in the works but after watching Riddick I’d be rather interested to see it. If Riddick‘s purpose was to breathe fresh life into a dead franchise then it seems to have succeeded.

Captain Clegg (1962)

cleggAnyone who reads this blog will know my appreciation for the great Peter Cushing, and how I will make a point to watch anything that has him in it. Captain Clegg is a pulp thriller/boys own adventure yarn that was likely already out of fashion even when the film was released, but over fifty years later this does give it a certain old-school charm. Based on a series of Doctor Syn books from the 1930s/40s that Cushing himself was a big fan of, it tells the tale of coastal pirates/smugglers who work under the guise of marsh ghosts. Cushing is magnificent playing a village priest with an alter ego, full of wit and charm and a wicked triumphant grin whenever he has the upper hand. You can tell he had an absolute ball playing this character, there is a twinkle in his eye throughout.

Its all fairly tame and predictable compared to today’s standards but its a strong Hammer effort production-wise, with a great cast alongside Cushing (featuring some familiar Hammer faces such as Michael Ripper and Oliver Reed in an early supporting role). Its great fun, even if it will always be destined to (deservedly) sit in the shadow of Hammers more popular Dracula/Frankenstein movies. Its a wonder this ever managed to slip out onto Blu-ray at all, considering some of the ‘bigger’ films yet to get a release.

Some have complained that this is a 1080i release, with a ratio issue. Can’t say I really noticed (but then again I’m due at Specsavers next week so maybe I shouldn’t voice an opinion). The 1080i business no doubt results from a master source problem and while its regrettable, I hardly think a fairly obscure film such as this would get a new remaster. Eyesight withstanding, it looked fine to me. And its Peter Cushing at the top of his game. Come on; it’d be great in VHS on a black and white CRT, and this disc is cheap as chips. I’m just glad we got what we got. Its a fun little movie.

TIE Fighter Attack

Tie-Fighter-attackBack in  the winter of 1977, news drifted across the Atlantic from a galaxy far, far away regards a new film sensation. Of course, back then the world  seemed much larger than it does today, and the galaxy far, far away was just America, but it might as well have indeed been a galaxy away, as America and its big tv shows like Starsky and Hutch and Kojak seemed quite alien anyway to a Black Country lad in 1970s Britain. Alien and wonderful.

News drifted across the pond so much slower than now- there was no 24-hr news coverage, and no internet. The BBC had a 9pm news broadcast and ITV one at 10pm.  Satellite feeds were still in their infancy. So anyway, as the days shortened and winter fell, the news seemed to finally be catching up with that summers movie sensation, Star Wars. It had been breaking all sorts of box-office records and was a huge hit.  A clip accompanied the news item; a short section from the Tie Fighter Attack sequence. I was eleven years old and could not believe my eyes. Spaceships, laser guns, a golden robot struggling down a spaceship corridor. Big explosions in space. Every time I see that sequence in the movie it throws me back to first seeing those images in late 1977 on a grainy black and white television. Of course I fell in love, what sci-fi loving kid wouldn’t?

 

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

snowBetter film than I expected. Not without its problems (there’s a pacing issue, for one, that left some scenes rather jarring, and an episodic nature that left some material pretty much redundant), it nonetheless had some major positives, not least Charlize Theron as the evil sorceress Ravenna. She steals the show not with scenery-chewing theatrics that you might have expected, but rather some real subtlety in a great performance. Alas, a weakness of this film is that several other characters are woefully under-written, something perhaps accounting for the pacing issues which seem to be the editor/s covering up the gaps in the script. Its a pity that so much of this film seems to work so well only to be undermined by script problems, because it often seems to be a good film that might have been a great film. When the film closes, its with a loud crashing thud, lacking any narrative closure, as if the inevitable promise of a sequel (oddly unforthcoming as yet) would be enough to keep viewers happy. It’s as if ten to fifteen minutes of film is missing and is really quite bizarre- indeed, its the oddest ending to a film I have seen in quite some time.

And the scene stolen from Ridley Scott’s Legend– what was that all about?