We Sure Can Pick 'Em, but We Also Call 'Em as We See 'Em: An Exchange on Searching for Sugar Man (Web Exclusive)
by Dan Georgakas
In our Spring 2013 issue, published in late February, our “Short Takes” page included a review by Cineaste Consulting Editor Dan Georgakas of the feature-length documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. That same week, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Below we reprint Dan’s review, as well as a letter subsequently received from Dan Bessie about the film and our review, plus Dan Georgakas’s reply.
The Sugar Man of this film is Sixto Rodríguez, a Detroit urban folk singer who released two albums in the 1970s. Although a flop in the United States, his albums, unbeknownst to Rodríguez, became the favorite music of white South Africans involved in the antiapartheid struggle. In the 1990s, Steve Segerman and Craig Batholomew, both avid Rodríguez fans, decided to investigate rumors that a profoundly depressed Rodríguez had committed suicide on stage. The film is primarily a somewhat clumsily rendered account of their search. They ultimately learned that rather than having committed suicide, Rodríguez was alive. No longer performing, he was now a demolition worker in Detroit, but he agreed to a movingly rendered triumphal tour in South Africa. At this point, however, the film collapses. The most basic details of Rodríguez’s life, such as where he was born, his musical influences, and the rearing of his three well-educated daughters, are not addressed. We do learn that Rodríguez eventually attended college, became immersed in philosophy, and has developed a vague Zenlike view of life. Other than that he has been very generous to his family and that there have been subsequent tours, his reaction to his unknown fame is not examined. Ultimately the film seems more interested in the searchers than in Rodríguez. Viewers are left wanting a sequel that would render a more sophisticated look at an intriguing and complex working-class musician. (Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, www.sonyclassics.com.)—Dan Georgakas
Selling Sugar Man Short?
While Dan Georgakas is correct that Searching for Sugar Man (Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2) deserves a “sequel that would tender a more sophisticated look at an intriguing and complex working-class musician,” his cursory review, highlighting what was left out of the film and also calling it a “clumsily rendered account of their [the producer’s] search to discover the truth” about Sixto Rodríguez, unfortunately gives short shift to what is certainly one of the outstanding documentaries of the past several years. With a 94% audience rating (96% from critics), and with both screenings I attended in suburban, white, middle-American theaters echoing with applause as the film concluded, this is a work to be taken far more seriously.
Omitted from the Georgakas “Short Take” was the enormous significance of why Rodríguez’s music and lyrics resonated so strongly in South Africa. Coming out of the decay and desperation of hard times in Detroit as these did, many of his songs, as the Sugarman fan site—http://sugarman.org/—says, “were centered on the political insensitivity to the poor who lived in the inner cities. His lyrics were all about pervasive injustice, and these were subjects that could easily touch many youngsters in that era.” And it has been to tens of thousands of young South Africans as well (especially young disaffected white youth) that Rodríguez’s lyrics spoke; not only of their own alienation, but also to that of their black sisters and brothers struggling to bring about change within a repressive apartheid society.
Equally valid in Sugar Man is an examination of Sixto Rodríguez himself; a man who, while denied fame and then surprisingly having it thrust upon him much later in life, has eschewed the gaudy trappings this might have brought him, and remained the kind of simple, hard-working, and more than generous father and friend that many media stars never become. Indeed, the film reveals him as someone whose example Americans in general and celebrities in particular could profitably emulate.
Most filmmakers (even highly successful ones) who want to say something important about the quality of life, celebrate little-known people or bring a fresh slant on history to viewers have an enormously difficult time funding their films, then bringing them to market. Far too many reviews, in my opinion (and this includes several I’ve read inCineaste), spend a lot of overly bookish and erudite-sounding verbiage on picking apart films—the review on Lincoln in this same issue is another example—while giving small credence to the reality of what Hollywood filmmaking is about, and what kind of creative and marketing considerations most filmmakers are forced to take into account if they’re going to stand half a chance of presenting something decent and worthwhile to audiences.
Perhaps the world needs more critics who have been filmmakers, and fewer who simply “study” film.
Sixto Rodríguez, the Detroit folk singer whose albums were embraced by white, antiapartheid South Africans
(Dan Bessie [b. 1932], is the son of novelist and blacklisted screenwriter Alvah Bessie [1904–1985]. Dan has worked in the film industry himself for more than forty years, and has published some of his father’s writings, including Spanish Civil War Notebooks (2001), as well as his own memoirs, including Rare Birds: An American Family(2001) and, most recently, Reeling Through Hollywood )
Dan Georgakas replies:
My Short Take review of Searching for Sugar Man developed the theme that this was not a particularly well-crafted film about a very extraordinary phenomenon. I noted the many details about Rodríguez that were missing. The film doesn’t even tell us much about the nature of his impact in South Africa. There is no serious accounting of how or even if his popularity actually translated into political or cultural activism. We do not learn of any South African musicians who followed his lead. Not one well-known, white anti-apartheid activist is called on to speak. Nor is there any explanation for a near total absence of black South African fans. Did black South Africans simply not know about him? Did they have some criticism of the songs? Did they judge his work irrelevant?
Among numerous technical shortcomings is that in some sequences it is not clear if we are watching a re-creation or an event as it is unfolding. It is not even clear that it was one of Rodríguez’s daughters who contacted them and not vice versa, although she indeed was responding to their Web outreach. Perhaps in a desire to make the story as dramatic as possible, the filmmaker chose not to inform viewers that Rodríguez’s Cold Fact was a hit in Australia in the early 1970s and that he toured in Australia in 1979 and 1981. The dearth of biographical data about Rodrîguez is inexcusable. A number of print journalists have been able to provide considerable background in articles about him published since the film’s release.
In short, the very virtues about Rodríguez that you (and I) admire did not generate a serious research effort on the part of the filmmakers. I don’t believe any of my concerns merit inclusion in your general criticism that Cineaste writers are often “bookish and erudite-sounding.” Having been editorially associated with Cineaste since 1969, I can also verify that one of our reasons for existing is that we often take issue with dominant opinion, not as knee-jerk contrarians, but because of our own critical perspectives. You speak of the difficulty in making low-budget documentaries and films about unpopular subjects. Such problems and such films have been one of our major concerns for decades. I am delighted that this documentary with its Cinderella-like happy ending has brought the Rodríguez phenomenon to light. That achievement merits praise and discussion.
That makes Searching for Sugar Man a noteworthy film, but that doesn’t automatically mean it is a particularly well-made film.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3