Film Review: “Looking for Sugar Man” (2012)

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Released in 2012, “Looking for Sugar Man” was rarely seen by the average viewer despite a stellar rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and an Oscar for best documentary at the 85th Academy Awards. Never released for wide distribution, many viewers saw it on airplane entertainment consoles.

The film details the story of a talented singer/songwriter in the genre of Bob Dylan that arrived in the early 70s, essentially a social injustice protester without the marketing money that Dylan enjoyed. He make two well received albums that never sold, and then vanished into the mist like many others of his ilk and time.

But talent is rarely completely vanquished even though it may not be marketable.  The artist’s eloquent musical attacks on social injustice emerged halfway across the world in South Africa where it became bigger a seller than the Rolling Stones or Elvis. One of his albums sold 500,000 copies 30 years after it was pressed, outselling Abbey Road.

In 1998, two South African record shop managers set about tracking down the artist Sixto Rodriguez in his native Detroit, ultimately finding him in 2011 toiling at construction labor.  This film details that search, and how virtually anyone can be found using the Internet.

Following the film’s release, Mr. Rodriguez has enjoyed some modest reemergence in his American popularity. 30 years is a long time to find the kind of fame Mr. Rodriguez discovers at age 70, but like the old Nashville adage goes: “Anyone with talent will make it big in country music…….eventually”.

The film documentary does much more than detail the search for a personality. It effectively explores the caprice of the rock scene, the nature of celebrity and appends the history of popular music.  Most of all, it’s a revealing saga of how a significant talent could vanish without trace in the world of show business where everything is publicized on Entertainment Tonight, Twitter and the Internet.

The nature of “talent” has always been ephemeral at best and, of course, varies with the eye or ear of the beholder. The popular on-line review site “rottentomatoes.com” shows two ratings for film, viewers and critics. The opinions thereof can be widely variable, the critic portion there to standardize objective benchmarks away from capricious personal opinion.

Accordingly, critical acclaim goes to Mr. Rodriguez for standing in place without extraneous hype or glitz, singing original material accompanying himself serviceably on a single musical instrument. Visions of Paul Simon, Don McLean, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Doc Watson and Kris Kristofferson in the early years.

One rarely if ever sees this kind of talent in the year this film was released. The entire concept of talent has evolved to how much visual and auditory impact an audience can absorb in lieu of simply singing a song with a clear voice and interesting lyrics.

One now sees female vocalists warbling within vividly embellished stages dressed as a ham sandwich, others with pink hair and outfits that can be covered with a thumb. Retina shattering blasts of light and sound accompanied by “Cleopatra”-like stage effects. Vocalists that make the evening edition of Entertainment Tonight when they change their hairstyle.

Tom Wolfe describes it as Plutography- the photography of the rich and famous for being famous.

““Looking for Sugar Man” is a very interesting chronicle of our time and a sad vision of the end of music as an art form as we knew it in the 70s.

Highly recommended by me.

I give it four and a half of five flopped albums.

 

 

 

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