Finding Sugar Man and Graceland

2012-02-03 08:35

Two documentaries that cast eyes back to apartheid and speak to music’s healing power shared the spotlight at the Sundance Film Festival last week among a wide selection of movies about songs, singers and musicians.

Non-fiction films Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap – in which rapper and actor Ice-T interviews Eminem, Nas, Snoop Dogg and others about the roots of hip-hop – and Shut Up and Play the Hits, about LCD Soundsystem’s last concert in New York, have focused on music.

Filly Brown, about a female hip-hop artist; California Solo, in which Robert Carlyle plays a washed-up rock star; and I Am Not A Hipster, about a tortured singer-songwriter; were among fictional films about the lives of musicians.

But it was the premiere of the documentary Under African Skies about singer-songwriter Paul Simon’s seminal album and another non-fiction film, Searching for Sugar Man, that wowed
the crowds.

Under African Skies recounts the making of Simon’s groundbreaking 1986 album, Graceland, and shows Simon returning to South Africa, where he recorded much of the acclaimed record that sparked controversy for breaking the cultural boycott under apartheid.

The film shows footage of original recording sessions from Graceland in South Africa and chronicles Simon’s 2011 reunion with the album’s musicians for a 25th anniversary concert.

The film makes the case that the album and resulting concert tour were overwhelming forces in bringing together people of various races and that political attacks against Simon by groups including the African National Congress were unwarranted.
“The Graceland phenomenon really came from a musical source and didn’t have an overt political point of view,” Simon told the Sundance audience.

“I am actually saying, ‘I have no regard for the structures of apartheid, I am here purely on a musical basis’.”

The film cuts back and forth between Simon’s 2011 reunion trip and the original Graceland recording sessions, offering insight into how hit songs like You Can Call Me Al were assembled after Simon was inspired by South African music groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

“My first impulse was to go where the music was and the musicians who I wanted to play with, and I didn’t know how it was going to come out,” Simon, now 70, told the audience.

“What happened with Graceland in becoming a worldwide hit was that the traditional music of South Africa became hip all over the world and South Africa began to take pride in what was a musical form that they considered
old hat, really.”

In stark contrast to Simon’s success as an artist, there is the story of an obscure, 1970s Detroit folk singer known as Rodriguez, who is the focus of Searching for Sugar Man.

Producers of his only two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, considered Rodriguez better than Bob Dylan, with his poetic lyrics protesting racial and economic inequality.

He wrote about a hard life on the streets of Detroit, but his stuff didn’t sell in the US.

The film about him has won standing ovations from cheering, tearful audiences at Sundance, where many have said it was among the best movies they had seen.

Searching for Sugar Man begins in South Africa, where the folk singer’s song, Sugar Man, was banned on the radio and he became an enigmatic, cult hero in the 1970s to a mostly white, liberal crowd spurred by his anti-establishment message.

But after his two albums bombed in the US, Rodriguez faded into obscurity, never recording again or knowing about his success in South Africa.

A South African record retailer, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, termed him “bigger than Elvis” and set about searching for the Mexican-American singer rumoured to have shot himself or set himself afire on stage.

“It’s been quite a journey to make this film. It took five years,” said director Malik Bendjelloul, who painstakingly uses grainy footage, animation and interviews to reconstruct Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew’s quest to find out what happened to the singer and his royalties.

“We knew nothing, his name never cropped up anywhere,” Segerman said of the search. “There was a mythology around this man for 30 years.”

And in a strange twist of Sundance fate, Segerman believes one reason Rodriguez’s first album never took off was because it was released near the same time as Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon’s seminal smash hit, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

» Searching for Sugar Man was bought over by Sony Pictures Classics, which distributes through Ster-Kinekor locally. Under African Skies has big-hitting Joe Berlinger as a director, so it will be snapped up too

» The Encounters Documentary Film Festival team is on the case to get both films for the festival, which takes place in Cape Town and Joburg during June

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