Monthly Archives: August 2012

Searching for Sugar Man — New Movie Review

A photo of Rodriguez from the cover of one of his two albums.

If you’re like me, you’re like the majority of people in this world and you’ve never heard of Rodriguez, a Detroit songwriter of the early 1970s who strummed his guitar with wicked dexterity and sung his lyrics with a hauntingly resonant voice. All I knew about him is what this movie told me: He recorded two albums that didn’t sell in the U.S. and he ended his career by committed suicide on stage. What he apparently did not know is his albums managed to gather a huge following in South Africa among white liberals. Though huge in South Africa, no one there knew anything much about him; they weren’t even clear on how he killed himself. (Stories ranged from shooting himself to self-immolation.) The movie follows two South African investigators who, working independently, set out to find the truth about “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, where he came from, who he was, and how he died. So I settled into my seat in the theater prepared for a somber story of a frustrated artist who finds redemption after death as people seemingly a world away find meaning in his work. Instead I got something much richer and uplifting as the movie takes a turn that I (and, judging from the gasps of surprise, most of the people in the theater) weren’t expecting. Of course now that some time has gone by the so-called secret of the movie is less guarded and obscure, which makes the whole structure of the movie feel a bit gimmicky, but I was still moved by the story. Even without the impact of the twist, the unfolding of the story is still remarkable.

At the outset the film explores two questions. First, why wasn’t Rodriguez successful in the U.S.? Forget successful. Why didn’t he garner any kind of cult following here? The movie gives us no clear answer; in interviews his producers wring their hands and shrug. The music is great (and it stands the test of time), the lyrics are creative and thoughtful, and his voice can be gut wrenching. Phil Ochs has been characterized as the anti-Bob Dylan (and heaven knows we need someone to knock Dylan off his undeservedly high pedestal), but as much as I love Phil Ochs, his lyrics and music are sometimes too playful, weighted down by irony and wit to truly rivaled Dylan. Rodriguez on the other hand had neither the time nor the inclination for those lyrical tricks. He looked at the world around him and saw little to cheer about – or get angry about for that matter. He cut to the bone – no, he cut to the emotional marrow of modern life. And if it comes off as somewhat lugubrious, well, what’s so great about modern life anyway?

 

A rare photo of Rodriguez in Detroit.

The second question the film tries to answer is why did he catch on in, of all places, South Africa? According to South African music writers interviewed in the film Rodriguez’s deep pathos and anti-establishment lyrics caught on amongst white liberal Afrikaners because it spoke to their discontent with a repressive government and stirred up feelings the heavily censored media sought to prevent. It is suggested that his music introduced the idea of anti-establishmentism in what was an authoritarian military state that ruthlessly stamped out any hint of opposition to the state or its apartheid policies. I don’t know if this endows Rodriguez with more influence than he really had or not, but it’s certainly fascinating that a quiet guy from Detroit can sing some songs, disappear, and change the lives of millions of people without even knowing it.

If you haven’t already read about the surprise of the movie do yourself a favor: see this movie cold. Avoid the temptation to read up on Rodriguez or what we now know about his remarkable life. I know it’s hard, but trust me you’ll enjoy the movie more, a movie that manages to juggle several disparate themes expertly. We come away thinking about the power of art over repression, the ability of one man to touch many (in almost Capraesque fashion), the power of myth and the insidiousness of rumor, the importance of living your life and doing what you love with integrity and passion, and, the laughably predictable corruption of the music industry.

Going back to the question of why Rodriguez didn’t catch on in the United States, I would like to pose a potential answer now that I’ve had a chance to listen to both of his albums. It seems Rodriguez came a little late. Maybe if he showed up six, seven, eight years earlier when people were open to being challenged by music, he would have been huge. By 1970, after years of strife, Americans were ready for something tamer, hence we get The Carpenters (whom, by the way, I also love). Add to the bad timing the fact that Rodriguez’s music isn’t ready made to be a hit; there are no catchy hooks, no easy refrains cleverly engineered to invade the collective consciousness of young Americans (like Call Me Maybe). They are mournful, introspective pieces of music exploring life as it is, not as we wish it could be. There is no promise of better times, there’s nothing blowing in the wind, there isn’t a bridge over those troubled waters, and he never alludes to any mythical past paradise that allegedly had to be torn down to put up a parking lot. All he sees is wind, troubled waters, and parking lots. His music was too challenging, too thoughtful for America in the early 1970s burned out by years of social strife and violent discord. This explanation is probably too simplistic to fully explain Rodriguez’s inability to make a mark, however small, in the U.S., but I think it’s at least part of it. In the meantime, go see Searching for Sugar Man and find out for yourself.

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Chishu Ryu in There Was a Father (Best Actor of 1942)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Ronald Colman (Random Harvest), Gary Cooper (The Pride of the Yankees), Noel Coward (In Which We Serve), Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key), Errol Flynn (Gentleman Jim), Henry Fonda (The Male Animal), Jean Gabin (Moontide), Michael Redgrave (Thunder Rock), Sabu (The Jungle Book), George Sanders (The Moon and Sixpence), Monty Wooly (The Man Who Came to Dinner), Monty Wooly (The Pied Piper)

Chishu Ryu, a constant presence in Ozu films.

Many actors can thank a good director for enhancing a performance through insightful direction and creative editing, but few actors can trace the bulk of their good work and most of their career back to one director. Chishu Ryu, however, can. He wasn’t the best actor in Japan – both he and his long-time collaborator director Yoshujiro Ozu agreed on this – but his work in Ozu’s films verges on great. At first glance he appears to simply exist within Ozu’s intricately detailed compositions, but as we look closer we realize that his performances brim with subtle subterranean pathos. Over the years his characters moved and talked within those sparsely composed shots, but he also emerged as an essential part of them, no more or less important than a shot of closed umbrellas lined up along a wall or raindrops gently dripping off of a leaf. Ozu’s spare direction helped Ryu bring out emotional depths of his characters, emotions that Ryu admits he didn’t always understand or feel himself capable of until he was actually in the process of performing. Ozu would simply tell him to look at his hand and then look up and say his line. Or wait several seconds before turning. There was, it appears, little to no discussion of motivation or method and, under this system that would have terrified most actors, Chishu Ryu thrived.

His performance in There Was a Father, with an able assist from Ozu, is one of Ryu’s best, and it is certainly the best performance by a lead actor of 1942. I’ve already discussed the movie here, but I purposely avoided discussing Chishu Ryu because I knew I would be taking the time to talk about him here.

While there are other actors that pulled off extremely good performances (Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy come to mind), none affected me as completely as Ryu’s stoic father sacrificing his relationship with his beloved son to fulfill his duty to the boy. That he could have lived with his son at any time, that he could have taken a lesser paying job or had his son go to a less prestigious school is unthinkable to the man who can’t comprehend any other course, especially after a tragedy on a lake at the beginning of the film.

The film opens on Ryu’a Horikawa Shuhei working as a teacher. He is out with his class on a field trip to a quiet, idyllic country lake. As Shuhei sits with the other teachers inside, playing games and relaxing, one of his students drowns on the lake. Overwhelming guilt causes Shuhei to resign his post and concentrate his attentions on his son Ryohei, unwilling to let another failure of surveillance, another failure of probity to hurt his son. He accepts that he has to leave his son at a boarding school and take a better paying job in Tokyo because, well, that is what a father who wants better for his son does.

Ozu doesn’t give Ryu any showcase, emotional meltdown scenes, like Agnes Moorehead’s incredible moment at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons; that wouldn’t gel with the character or the tone of the film. But Ryu doesn’t need a scene like that to convey the emotional and mental core of his character. And while we see his commitment to duty, both to his son and, by extension his country, we always feel an overwhelming sense of loss, by what could have been and what could be now. He isn’t unfeeling, heartless, as his actions might suggest to Western observers. Even the scene when his now adult son suggests he leave his job and move closer to his father and Horikawa passionately lectures him for even thinking of shirking his responsibilities when his country needs him for something as frivolous as wanting to be closer to family is both rousing and heartbreaking.

Few actors could have managed to find the balance between their own talent (or lack thereof) and Ozu’s sparse, minimalistic designs. Many actors would rail against Ozu’s strict directions, eager to show off their range and ability. Perhaps Ozu chose Ryu because of his acting limitations, because he knew he would be able to mold Ryu’s characters in ways he wouldn’t with better and more accomplished actors. And maybe, when acknowledging Ryu as the best actor of 1942, it would also be appropriate to acknowledge Ozu as well because he had as much to do with the success of Ryu’s performance as Ryu himself.

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