CINEMA: The Man Who Wasn’t There


SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012, directed by Malilk Bendjelloul, Sweden/U.K.)
HOPE SPRINGS (2012, directed by David Frankel, 100 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I remember the first time I heard “Sugar Man,” the signature song by 60’s missing link/Latino Donovan doppelganger Rodriguez. I was in a record store about five years ago, and Rodriguez’s plaintive, pleading voice singing the title over the Spanish guitar stopped me in my tracks. This song didn’t sound like a mere hit, it sounded like a classic, and the album it comes from, 1970’s Cold Fact shows a fully-developed artist in mid-flight. But the shocking truth is Rodriguez didn’t have any hits and he never got near rock star status. Well, not in The States at least.

In fact he was more than a just a rock star in mid-70s South Africa, he was a revolutionary cultural figure whose lyrics inspired South African bands to protest Apartheid policies. South African radio banned some of his songs, but everyone owned Rodriguez’s records and sang his tunes at barb-e-cues as a tradition. But Rodriguez never knew. If fact, no one seemed to know where Rodriguez was, and rumors spread that he committed a theatrical act of suicide on stage. Finally, in the mid-90’s, a South African record store owner and superfan decided that he was going to get to the bottom of the mystery of whatever happened to Rodriguez.

Memories of previous music documentaries on cult musicians like Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston set off a nervous tension in me. If the man behind this yearning, melancholic, and socially-conscious music had degenerated into a drug-addled mess then Sugar Man was going to be and anti-climactic bummer. But Rodriguez’s story, while still gritty and not without tragedy, defies the cliché of artistic burn-out.

It’s hard to discuss Searching For Sugar Man without copping to just how personally moved I was by the story. It’s starts with the music of Sixtoo Rodriguez, a part-Mexican/part Native American songwriter from Detroit whose work captures that same sense of moral dismay and sadness that Marvin Gaye found in his classic What’s Goin’ On,  a record made in Detroit the same year, its players drawn from the same pool as those on Rodriguez’s Cold Facts. Just hearing Rodriguez’s music paired with footage from the streets of Detroit back in the day was enough to coax chills.

When we finally reach Rodriguez, and later see him reach his audience in South Africa, the film hits a note similar to the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life —  seeing a man’s humble life being justified. We find out where Rodriguez was and yet the musician maintains the mystique of a true artist. The film is masterful in the way it teases out the facts of Rodriguez’s tale, and you could even quibble that they left out the story of a similar tour the singer did of Australia in the late 70s (where there is another pocket of Rodriguez stardom.) Yet in the end, when making an audience feel good is so often a cheap manipulation, Rodriguez’s story earns its stirring pay-off, brick-by-brick.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Truth be told, I had no business attending Hope Springs, a film obviously made for sexually-repressed senior citizen ladies. But Merle Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, stifling heat, and an eased August scheduled lured me into the darkness of the theater. Oh, so dark.

Hope Springs is basically a three person drama, with the frumpy housewife Streep dragging Tommy Lee Jones to a weekend of couples counseling in Connecticut town, hoping someday they might sleep in the same bed again. Taking then on this journey is Steve Carrell playing straight-man as their therapist. You can imagine where this all lead. Will the die-hard grump re-connect with his emotions, learn how to touch his wife again and will the film climax with an act of sexual congress? Wait, you’re getting ahead of Grandma….

Now geez, I’m all for encouraging senior to pursue their sex lives and if Hope Springs serves as a primer for how to get your grouchy hubby to therapy perhaps this movie deserves its props. But listening to some of the world’s greatest actors describe their sexual ignorance in excruciating yet tasteful detail takes on a near-disorienting effect of attraction/repulsion. Yes, I want to see Merle and Tommy Lee Jones together on screen but no, I don’t want to see them act out my great grandparents sexual dynamic. Warm titters were heard echoing the theater, perhaps a sign you should recommend Hope Springs to your mom, but be extra-prepared if she wants to talk about it later.