Movie Reviews - 2012 postsFriday November 30, 2012
Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
WARNING: SEV-2 SPOILERS
“Wreck-It Ralph” is about what happens to video-game characters after you leave the arcade. It’s “Toy Story” for the digital age.
Not as good, of course. It’s got some wit and laugh-out loud moments. If you’re a parent and your kid wants to go, I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. If you’re a gamer or computer geek, I’m sure you’ll appreciate it on a deeper level than I did. But I’m neither parent nor gamer so I thought it was merely … OK.
Our protagonist and title character is Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the low-brow, fist-heavy bad guy of the 30-year-old arcade game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” In pixilated low-def, Ralph wrecks a building and Felix (steered by the user, and voiced by Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock”) fixes it; then the residents of the building give Felix a medal, pick up Ralph, and throw him off the roof and into the mud below.
Problem? Ralph is tired of being the bad guy. Even at the end of the day, when the kids go home and the characters are free to do what they want, Felix is feted by the building’s residents while Ralph drags himself to the nearby dump and sleeps on a pile of rocks. He airs his complaints at Bad-Anon, a support group for video-game villains (including one of the ghosts from Pac-Man), who end each meeting with this affirmation:
I’m bad and that’s good.
I will never be good and that’s not bad.
There’s no one I’d rather be than me.
But he’s still lonely. When the building’s residents hold a 30th anniversary party, he crashes it, gets into an argument with Gene (Raymond S. Persi), the mustached fussbudget, and splatters the celebratory cake everywhere with his massive fists. Then he declares he’ll win a medal like Felix and show everyone.
A few rules of this universe. If a character dies outside their video game they die for good. No regeneration. And if they don’t make it back to their video game in time, they risk the dreaded “Out of Order” sign, which is a step away from being unplugged; then they’ll be forced to fend for themselves in a kind of video-game port authority, with surge protectors policing the area and unplugged characters, such as Q*bert, begging for handouts. Finally, if you try to insert yourself into someone else’s video game, that’s called “going Turbo,” after the character Turbo, who headed up the most popular racing game of the early ’80s. Then another game became more popular so he tried to take it over, which led to both games being unplugged. Lesson there.
Which Ralph, being Ralph, ignores. He learns a medal awaits the winner of “Hero’s Duty,” a high-def, first-person shooter game, and he immediately steals the dark-metal spacesuit of one of its soldiers, then mucks up the game. Worse, he rides, or is ridden by, a spaceship with a Cy-Bug attached, and they wind up in Sugar Rush, a brightly colored, girly, racing game, where the Cy-Bug begins to lay eggs and Ralph quickly loses the medal to a sassy sprite named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She sees it as a coin with which she can enter a race, which she’s never done since she’s a glitch: fading in and out of view. But she feels racing is in her code.
For a time they team up. Ralph helps Vanellope train so she can win the race and get his medal back. But then the ruler of Sugar Rush, King Candy (Alan Tudyk doing Ed Wynn), warns him that if Vanellope wins or places, she’ll become a user choice; and when she glitches they’ll complain; and the game will be unplugged and everyone will be forced to leave. Except Vanellope, who, as a glitch, can’t leave the game. She’ll die with it.
Burdened with this news, Ralph, stricken, does what he does best: his big fists wreck Vanellope’s car. It’s his first heroic act of the movie but he’s never felt more like a bad guy.
Worse, when he returns to his own game, an “Out of Order” sign is taped to the window. His absence was noted by gamers, the sign affixed, and Felix Jr., a kind of gee-whiz good guy, went in search of him. Now everyone’s gone. Everyone but Gene, who fussily commends Ralph on his medal before leaving for good.
This is about when the movie got interesting for me. Up to this point, Ralph has been an unsympathetic character in pursuit of a pathetic goal. But when he heaves his medal against the “Out of Order” sign on the opposite side of the glass, it tilts, and beyond it he sees Vanellope’s face on the “Sugar Rush” game. And a light goes on. If Vanellope was a glitch, why would she be pictured on the game? Now Ralph’s got a better motivation than getting a medal. He needs to find out what King Candy is up to and save Vanellope in the process.
Ready for the big spoilers? King Candy is really Turbo, Vanellope is really a princess, and during the big race the Cy-Bugs hatch and attack. Sugar Rush is defended by Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the hard-ass fem-babe of “Hero’s Duty,” and, most of all, by Ralph, who, through the magic of coca-cola and Mentos, eliminates the Cy-Bugs and Turbo. Order is restored. Felix and Calhoun kiss. Everyone lives happily ever after.
But it’s not clever enough. It’s got clever bits but Pixar movies are steeped in it. This feels like a corporation, the Disney corporation, using its corporate mentality to try to ape the individualistic, artistic sensibility of a company like Pixar. A lot of what they come up with is derivative, a lot is broad, too many opportunities are missed.
The voicework, particularly by Silver, Brayer, Lynch and Tudyk, is fantastic. But our main character? Ralph? And John C. Reilly’s voice that went with him? Annoyed me throughout. I never liked him. I never even felt sorry for him. And I’ve felt sorry for some pretty despicable characters in the movies.
In another lifetime I worked in the video-game industry. I was a software test engineer in the early days of Xbox, working on Xbox-specific sports games like “NFL Fever” and “NBA Inside Drive.” I was the non-gamer in the group, there by accident, a kind of glitch myself, and my job was to find bugs and label them according to severity or “sev.” Sev 1 bugs crash the game, sev 2 bugs halt it in some fashion, sev 3s are annoying, sev 4s are merely suggestions that tend to get ignored by the developer.
I’d label Ralph somewhere between a sev 2 and sev 3 bug. He’s annoying and he halts the movie for me. He’s bad and that’s not good.
I know. By Design.
Movie Review: Flight (2012)
“Flight” has an obvious double meaning: both Southjet flight #227, with 102 passengers on board, which Capt. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) lands in a Georgia field after a mechanical failure, saving all but six people; and Whitaker’s subsequent flight from the knowledge, the lifelong knowledge, that he’s a drunk and an alcoholic, and that he landed the plane under the influence, and now people know.
The trailer really plays up the hero angle, doesn’t it? I went back and looked at it again. It implies that “Flight” is a movie about a heroic pilot who saves 100 lives in a derring-do, upside-down, crash landing—thrillingly filmed by director Robert Zemeckis and DP Don Burgess—and then runs into some bullshit. But the movie’s about the bullshit. And it’s not bullshit.
The movie opens at 7:14 AM—an homage to Babe Ruth or “Dragnet”?—as Whitaker is awakened by his iPhone. His bed partner, flight attendant Nadine (Katerina Marquez ), is awakened, too; and while he staggers his way through a conversation with his ex-wife, she walks back and forth, stunning us with her nakedness. At one point she bends over. “I’ve been up since … the crack of dawn,” Whit says to his ex-wife. It’s his first lie in the movie. At least it’s a witty one. Is there a reason for this nakedness other than the “wow” factor? Is it designed to make us feel guilty? Distracted? We thought we were seeing a Denzel Washington character study and suddenly we’re waylaid by this naked beauty.
At which point Whip hangs up, finishes his beer, snorts some cocaine and gets ready to fly an airplane in bad weather. Yeah, “Flight” won’t be your in-flight movie anytime soon.
So we know his problem from the get-go. Would the movie have been better if, like the trailer, it had engaged in a little subterfuge? If it had begun with Capt. Whitman entering the cockpit, the conversation there, the cup of coffee? We think we’re watching the story of a hero and object when the railroading begins. Until we realize it isn’t railroading.
The straightforward approach has the advantage of being straightforward. It has the disadvantage of not surprising us much.
The soundtrack doesn’t help. Whip’s drunk/coked-up walk to the airplane is accompanied by Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright (Not feeling too good myself).” His first visitor in the hospital is Harling Mays (John Goodman), friend and drug dealer, whose entrance is accompanied by the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” As foreplay at Whip’s farm? Marvin Gaye.
Sympathy for the Devil
Harling is an interesting character. He’s essentially a bad person, the man who keeps Whip on the wrong path, but we like him because he’s John Goodman. He bosses around the nurse, calls her “Nurse Ratched,” and, when she’s gone, leaves Whip some smokes and “stroke mags.” He would’ve left vodka, too, but Whip tells him to take it with him. He’s in shock at this point. He’s trying to change. Six people died on his watch, including Nadine. And now the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) knows about his problem. They took blood from the flight crew, including those, like Nadine, who didn’t survive, and they know about the booze and coke. What we don’t know, what we don’t find out until a late-morning meeting between the pilots’ union rep (Bruce Greenwood), Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a quiet-but-tough Chicago lawyer, and Whip, is that Whip’s blood-alcohol level was .24. That’s three times the legal limit to drive. A car. He’s facing criminal negligence and manslaughter charges.
Pursued by the media, pursued by his demons, Whip tries to remove all evidence of his problem. At the family farm, where he learned to fly in a Cessna 172 crop duster, he gets rid of all the booze: beer, wine, hard liquor. He gets involved in a relationship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a red-headed masseuse and heroin addict whom he met in the stairwell of the hospital, and whose story, pre-crash, had been intercut with his. She goes to AA meetings. He falls off the wagon in a bad way. If he was ever on it.
As bad as we thought he was? He’s worse. Denzel is amazing here. The overwhelming confidence he brings to his characters is cut in half, and laced with doubt and guilt. He’s overweight and out-of-shape but you see it more in the way his face crumbles. His mouth doesn’t work right and his chin recedes. Screenwriter John Gatins is an alcoholic himself and he gets all the excuses right. “What, you want to count the fucking beers?” he says to Nicole. “I choose to drink,” he says to everyone, particularly himself. Watching Denzel, I got flashbacks to the alcoholics I’ve known. It’s not like Goodman. There’s no charm here. There’s just sadness and disgust.
The movie builds toward a public hearing before the NTSB and we find ourselves in Whip’s shoes, rooting for him to get away with it. I caught myself doing this several times and consciously reversed course. No, get caught, motherfucker. For you and the people who know you.
The reckoning is predictable, and of Whip’s choosing. He has his “one too many lies” moment. He can’t tell another. In the end he can’t lie about Nadine, the girl he was with in the beginning, and who never made it out of Flight #227.
What’s Going On?
There are some great supporting performances here, particularly Goodman, Cheadle, Melissa Leo as the NTSB investigator and James Badge Dale as a cancer patient, and of course Denzel dominates, but the movie’s too long. 138 minutes? I would’ve cut Nicole’s whole backstory—shooting up, trouble with the scuzzy landlord, blah blah—as well as Whip’s final scene with his son, and ended it with him talking to his fellow prisoners: “For the first time in my life I’m free.” When he said it I thought: Good end. But the movie kept going.
The bigger problem? Stories about alcoholics are not that interesting. You either continue on your downward trajectory, hit bottom and struggle back up, or die. That’s it, and that’s not enough. Is there a way to make them better? Everyone carries around something that weighs on them, some shame, but most of us are able to live with it. We function in a way alcoholics can’t. Thus there’s no public reckoning or admission. Is another group of people involved in this kind of public confession? With like-minded people? It’s like coming out of the closet but without the celebration. Maybe there should be more celebration. There’s the shame of your life being controlled and consumed, but there’s courage in the confession.
Movie Review: Chasing Ice (2012)
WARNING: IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT, AND FOX-NEWS FEELS FINE (SPOILERS)
The great unasked question in the climate-change debate is at what point in the near-future do we string up Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and all of the other global-warming deniers from what’s left of the tallest tree? At what point will all of us, and not just scientists, know, with every fiber of our being, that the carbon emissions mankind has been adding to the atmosphere over the last 150 years is creating a greenhouse effect that is in fact, and not in theory, warming the planet, melting the glaciers, rising sea levels, and creating weather-related havoc around the globe? Before it’s too late? After it’s too late? And if the latter, how will we view those who have denied all along that it was ever occurring?
Last week, these same guys kept denying the poll numbers of statisticians like Nate Silver until Barack Obama, their bete noir both figuratively and literally, was reelected president of the United States. Silver has a book out called “The Signal and the Noise.” It’s about polls and poll numbers but the title could be about the greenhouse effect and global warming. For decades scientists have been listening to the signal and climate-change deniers have been providing the noise, but the question no one asks these guys, the Hannitys and Limbaughs, is this: If you’re wrong, and if we move too late, how will you not be viewed as the greatest villains in human history?
‘The story is in the ice somehow’
Forgive the screed but the other night I watched “Chasing Ice,” a documentary by Jeff Orlowski about National Geographic photographer James Balog, who, with a young, international team, has spent the last five years documenting, via time-lapse photography, the melting of glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana. This melting is speeding up. What took 100 years in the 20th century is taking 8-10 in the 21st. They also record, through luck or patience, the “calving” of huge chunks of glaciers. The first time we see it, early in the film, we don’t quite get what we’re watching. The glacier is rumbling and shifting, almost as if it’s alive, as if it’s rousing itself, but in what direction? Then suddenly we understand. A monumental slab of ice breaks away, shifting forward at the bottom, and falling backward. It almost looks like it’s lying down for a nap. Then it just disappears. The last such slab we see disappearing in this manner is the size of Manhattan.
Balog began life as a scientist but didn’t like the fussy calculations, the stultifying lab-ness of it all, and at the age of 25 reinvented himself as a nature photographer. He didn’t know anything about photography, but, he says, “Youthful brashness can take you a long way.” He was particularly interested in how humans and nature intersected. For a time he focused on endangered wildlife. He liked taking shots at night for its absence of sheltering sky. The vastness of the night sky reminds us of what we are and where we are and what we’re on. It reminds us of the fragility of our existence.
He began as a climate-change skeptic. He couldn’t see how humans, despite their number, could have an impact on something as vast as the world. But he became interested in ice—in photographing it, in the beauty of it—and came to the story that way. “The story is in the ice somehow,” he says in the doc.
He was visiting one glacier, I believe the Solheim Glacier in Iceland, and noticed how much it had receded since the last time he was there: 100 feet per year, he estimated. That’s how he got the idea for the time-lapse photography. He created an organization, the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), and he and his team set up 25 cameras, in hostile conditions, in March 2007. Six months later, in October, they returned to find … nothing. Some cameras were buried or damaged. Batteries exploded. There’s talk about voltage regulators. At one camera, Balog, who seems fairly even-keeled up to this point, lets loose with a burst of swearing. At another he begins to cry. “If I don’t have pictures,” he says, “I don’t have anything.”
Like watching La Sagrada Familia melt
I saw the doc with friends and some in the group, particularly the women, were put off by Balog. They felt the doc was too much about him when it should have been about it. They thought he took too many unnecessary risks for photographs that don’t have anything to do with global warming. For a time in the doc, the focus even becomes his knee. He’s had two surgeries on it, gets another, is told he can’t hike anymore. Yet there he is back in Greenland and Iceland and Alaska, traipsing through the snow to his cameras, and rappelling down ravines for that perfect shot. Until he can’t anymore. All of which is gloriously beside-the-point. If we’re talking about the end of the world as we know it, what’s James Balog’s knee in this equation? Nothing. The knee is only there for false drama. It doesn’t matter who goes to the cameras, as long as that evidence is got. If we have pictures, we have everything.
And we have pictures. We know we will. Otherwise why are we sitting in a theater watching this thing? The documentary wouldn’t have been distributed without them.
When we finally see the time-lapse photographs of the glaciers melting, it’s horrifying. It’s like watching beauty and grandeur melt away. One feels sick to one’s stomach. One wonders why it isn’t on the news and in the newspapers and on the web. But of course it is. It’s just not central to the news and the newspapers and the web. It’s not trending.
Global warming has always had trouble as a cause because it’s a completely abstract phenomenon. Every few months we’ll get a natural disaster, which may or may not be attributed to climate change, but that’s about it. It’s a slow process, whose ends are unknown, which we may or may not be causing. What Balog does is provide specific evidence. He makes it real. This is what’s being lost. These glaciers. This beauty. It’s like watching the Louvre and La Sagrada Familia and the Great Wall of China melting because of something we did, and do, and don’t care enough to stop.
‘We don’t have time’
Here’s what I’ve never understood about climate-change deniers. Global warming came to us as a theory in the 1970s, or maybe as early as the 1950s, when scientists realized we were adding carbon to the atmosphere and wondered what that might do. From a New York Times editorial in 1982:
The greenhouse theory holds that carbon dioxide, the waste gas released by burning coal, oil and gas, does for the planet what glass does for a greenhouse - lets the sun's warmth in but not back out again. Until the industrial revolution, excess CO2 was absorbed in the oceans. Now the gas is accumulating rapidly in the atmosphere. The climatologists predict that present levels of CO2 will double in the next 50 to 70 years, raising global surface temperatures an average of three degrees.
This was the hypothesis but there was no evidence to back it up. In the above editorial, called “Waiting for the Greenhouse Effect,” the Times’ editorial board wrote, “There is no cause for panic, but there are plenty of reasons for prudence.” They wrote, “Until there is indubitable proof of a global warming caused by CO2, the greenhouse effect must remain a hypothesis.”
Now we have evidence that the planet is warming, but there’s still a contingent of denier who says, “Yes, but…” Yes, but the planet’s temperature has always fluctuated. Yes, but there’s no evidence that this warming is the result of increased C02 in the atmosphere. It’s like a game in which the rules keep changing. You tell us A and we’ll ask for B, and when B arrives, decades later, we’ll ask for C. “We’ll be arguing about this for centuries,” one of the talking heads in the doc says, citing our arguments about evolution. “We don’t have time,” he says.
For all its false drama (Balog’s knee, etc.), “Chasing Ice” is a worthy doc and worth seeing on the big screen. For the few people who see it, it will, for a moment anyway, move the issue of global warming into a more central part of their psyche, which is, at the least, what we need. Just as all of us have contributed to the problem, bit by bit, all of us must contribute to the solution, bit by bit. The first step is interest.
Movie Review: Skyfall (2012)
Was I the only one who was bored by this? Who thought the slow bits weren’t intellectually engaging enough and the fast bits weren’t fun enough? We get the usual whiz-bang chase sequences in exotic locales around the world (and London and Scotland), and feints at soul searching (without much soul or searching), but it’s hardly fun. And what’s the point of being James Bond if there’s no fun in it?
Craig’s Bond has turned into a bore. He’s a drag. He has no twinkle in the eye, just a long, slow smolder. He lives in a post-9/11 world where he’s always on guard. He stands there, in his too-tight suit, ready to pop. In this movie he’s offered a new way of looking at the world and doesn’t take it. One gets the feeling he doesn’t have the imagination to take it. Or see it.
Yes, the pre-title motorcycle chase scene over the rooftops of Istanbul is glorious. Yes, the photography, particularly of the Scottish countryside, is beautiful. Yes, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, give us one of the great villain introductions: the long, still shot of Silva (Javier Bardem) coming down the elevator and into frame as he tells his tale of a giant hole of rats eating each other until only two survive; and these two rats, who now have a taste for rat, are set free because they will keep the island free of other rats. It’s a horrific tale that resonates. Silva is speaking of himself and Bond. He obviously feels a kinship with Bond. He’s selling himself short.
M stands for Micromanager
Here’s the description of the movie on IMDb.com:
Bond's loyalty to M (Judi Dench) is tested as her past comes back to haunt her.
I would say it’s not tested enough. M, let’s face it, is a lousy boss. She’s a micromanager. Here are some of the decisions she makes during the course of the film:
- During the pre-title sequence, M tells Bond to leave behind an injured MI6 agent, Ronson (Bill Buckhurst), knowing Ronson will die, to pursue Patrice (Ola Rapace, Noomi’s ex), who has a disc with every undercover and embedded agent on it. You get a flash of disagreement from Bond here but I’m with M. The disc is more important. The bigger question is who created the disc in the first place? Hey, let’s put all of our secrets in one place, where they’ll always be safe and no one will ever find them.
- M continues to bark orders throughout the high-speed pursuit. She then tells Eve (Naomie Harris), a relatively new agent, to shoot Patrice as he fights with Bond atop a speeding train on a trestle high above what I assume is the Black Sea. Eve is worried she’ll shoot Bond but M orders her to “take the shot” anyway. Meaning M puts more trust in a new agent than in her best agent. Not smart.
- When the MI6 network is hacked, and its headquarters bombed, she moves the agency underground, into caverns left over from … is it the Blitz? But this plays right into Silva’s hands.
- When Bond returns from the dead, and from a self-imposed exile, she clears him for duty even though he fails every test. He’s not psychologically ready. He’s not physically ready. He can’t shoot straight. But what the hell. Apparently she doesn’t have anyone else.
We also learn of the horrible decision she made that led to the present circumstances.
Bond = Batman; Silva = the Joker
Silva, you see, is former MI6. Years back, during the Cold War, M traded him for six agents. Were there extenuating circumstances? Did she just like the numbers? I forget. Silva was tortured but divulged nothing. He tried to kill himself with a cyanide capsule but didn’t die. The cyanide ate away at his insides and turned him half-insane. He stayed alive for revenge. On M. So all of this, the entire movie, is about M. MI6 isn’t saving the world from bad guys anymore; they’re eating their own. The chickens have come home to roost.
Bond has his own issues with M. He didn’t like leaving Ronson behind and he didn’t appreciate M’s “Take the shot” directive. M didn’t trust him to finish the job and it nearly finished him. “Nearly.” It should have finished him. He’s shot twice and falls hundreds of feet into the Black Sea. M and MI6 actually think he’s dead. We know he’s not because it’s the beginning of the movie and he’s James Bond. He’s our plaything. We can drop him from the moon and he’ll survive.
So what does James Bond do, being thought dead? This may be the most disappointing part of the movie for me. He sulks. He hangs out on a tropical beach, has rough sex with a local beauty, plays rough drinking games with scorpions, and loses his edge. He only returns when he hears of the terrorist attack on MI6. It gives you an idea what he’ll be like in retirement. A drag.
At this point the question of the movie becomes: Can Bond regain his edge? He’s weaker now. His hand shakes when he shoots. Losing this, he loses everything. Until he gets it back, of course. Which he does later in the film. We knew he would. We can drop him from the moon, remember.
Bond could be Silva. That’s how Silva sees it anyway. But Bond couldn’t be Silva because Bond isn’t smart enough. Silva is not only a trained MI6 agent, in the Bond mold, but he outwits the new Q (Ben Whishaw). Even when Silva’s captured, halfway through the film, he’s not really captured. He’s in a glass booth in the middle of a guarded room, like Hannibal Lector in “Silence of the Lambs,” but we know he’ll escape. Hell, he wanted to be captured. It was part of his master plan. It took me a moment to realize why this scenario—the villain, incarcerated, holding all the cards—echoed. It’s the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” He too felt an affinity with the hero, and the hero, Batman, was too dumb and humorless to see it. The dynamic is the same and it’s dull. It’s dull because the hero is dull and the villain has all the fun. Used to be the reverse for Bond. Used to be the villain humorlessly stroked cats while Bond stroked other things.
The real Bond girl
Speaking of: Where are the girls? All the movie’s pre-publicity trumpeted Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine, but she’s killed halfway through the movie. The tropical, rough-sex beauty lasts about five seconds. There’s a fling with Eve, discreetly implied with old-fashioned fireworks, but by the end she’s a pal. By the end she’s Moneypenny. Literally.
No, the Bond girl in this movie is M. She’s the girl being fought over by hero and villain. Near the end, during the assault on Skyfall, the home in Scotland where Bond grew up and was orphaned, she’s injured and in pain, her hand is red with blood, but I felt nothing for her. Are we supposed to have sympathy? I think the filmmakers want us to. But all of this is because of her. The chickens are coming home to roost on her. There should be soul searching throughout London, and Great Britain, and the world. There isn’t. The enemy is us but we either don’t realize it or don’t care.
M dies but we get a new M (Ralph Fiennes). Bond could die but we’d just get a new Bond. We will get a new Bond, eventually, world without end. When we do, a request. Please make him a little less superseriously American, like Batman and Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne, and a little more British. Because: Please, he’s British.
Movie Review: Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
“Searching for Sugar Man” is a good documentary about a great story.
In the 1970s in South Africa, so the story goes, there were three albums in every white, liberal (read: anti-Apartheid) home: “Abbey Road” by the Beatles; “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel; and “Cold Fact” by Rodriguez. Everyone listened to Rodriguez. “He was the soundtrack to our lives,” says record-shop owner Steve Segerman, known to his friends as “Sugarman” after Rodriguez’s signature song. It just took awhile for South Africans to realize that they were the only ones listening. It took them awhile to realize that while everyone knew the Beatles, nobody anywhere knew anything about Rodriguez.
Legends about the man grew. Creation stories were perpetuated. Apparently an American girl with a South African boyfriend brought the first Rodriguez cassette tape into the country in the early 1970s. End times were debated. Apparently in an early 1970s concert he’d poured gasoline on himself and lit himself on fire. No no, he’d greeted the indifference of a tepid crowd by putting a gun to his head and blowing his brains out.
Searching for Rodriguez
Decades later, in 1996, Segerman wrote the CD liner notes to Rodriguez’s second album, 1971’s “Coming from Reality,” and, after owning up to the complete lack of information about the man, asked, “Any musicologist detectives out there?” There was: journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, who had his own list of stories to pursue, the fourth of which was: How Rodriguez died.
This is what he had to go on: a dead record label; a few grainy photos; lyrics. They assumed Rodriguez was American but didn’t know which city. “Inner City Blues” contains the line, “Going down a dusty Georgian side road.” So maybe the South? “Can’t Get Away” referenced being born “in the shadow of the tallest building.” So maybe New York? Bartholomew-Strydom follows the money, like Woodward and Bernstein, but it dead-ends in southern California.
He was about to give up when he honed in on another line from “Inner City Blues”:
Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o'clock this morn
The sad thing isn’t that Bartholomew-Strydom had to look up Dearborn in an atlas when almost any American could have told him it’s in Michigan; the sad thing is that that the documentary has already told us that Rodriguez is in Michigan. Early on, we hear interviews with his Detroit record producers, who lament what happened to him. We talk with people who knew him from the streets of Detroit. They say he was kind of a wandering mystic: a cross between a poet, a shaman and a hobo.
So why does Malik Bendjelloul begin his doc this way? It leaves the audience in the awkward position of waiting for its heroes, Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom, to come up to speed.
Maybe Bendjelloul begins this way because the lamentations of colleagues reinforce the notion that Rodriguez is dead. Because that’s the big reveal halfway through the doc: He’s not dead. He’s alive. He’s been working construction and renovation in Detroit never knowing he’d become a music legend halfway around the world.
For South Africa, it’s as if Elvis has turned up alive. Most refuse to believe it. Most think it’s a hoax. Because how can Elvis and Jim Morrison and John Lennon still be alive? The world doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t give us that gift.
In subsequent interviews with the documentarian, Rodriguez, born Sixto, reminds me of artistic types I’ve known who have an ethereal matter-of-factness about them. He’s not there but amazingly present. He seems disconnected but connected to something bigger. Asked if he enjoys construction work, he says, “It keeps the blood circulating.” Asked if he knows that in South Africa he’s bigger than Elvis or the Beatles, he replies, “I don’t know how to respond to that.”
The rest of the doc is, in a sense, recognition, at long last recognition, as well as reunion, or, more accurately, union, since he and South Africa have never known each other. In 1998, he travels there with his daughters for a concert. At the airport, limos pull up and the Rodriguezes stand aside for the VIPs before realizing they are the VIPs. They expect small venues and play to rapt, screaming crowds in sold-out arenas. He goes from being a loopy, wandering guy who does construction (in America) to being a music legend (in South Africa). But he stays in America. He keeps working construction. He keeps the blood circulating.
Searching for why
That’s the story, and it’s a great story, a powerful story, a story that couldn’t exist today. South Africa needed to be isolated from the rest of the world, via Apartheid, and the world needed to be not-yet-connected, via the Internet, for the story to work: for a legend to grow in isolation.
But here’s what the doc doesn’t answer:
- What happened to all the money South Africans spent on Rodriguez’s albums? He never saw a cent of it.
- Why did Rodriguez catch on in South Africa? Some of his lyrics are mentioned, particularly “I wonder/How many times you had sex” as an eye-opening notion. Yet South Africa did have the Beatles. They had the Stones. Weren’t their eyes already open?
- Why didn’t Rodriguez catch on in black South Africa? A consequence of Apartheid? A consequence of his music?
- Why did he never catch on in the States?
This last one is the main one for me. The doc, focusing on South Africans, and created by a Swede, isn’t curious enough about the lack of curiosity in America about Rodriguez. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for a solid month now and love it. It’s kept me going through the ups and downs of the 2012 presidential election. It feels more relevant than most contemporary music.
At times Rodriguez comes off like a soulful Bob Dylan, and, in 1970, that should’ve worked in his favor. That’s what everyone was looking for. John Prine, Steve Forbert, Bruce Springsteen: they were all new Bob Dylans. Rodriguez is so obscure he’s not even mentioned in Loudon Wainwright’s song, “New Bob Dylans.”
OK, let me admit that, yes, there’s no better lyricist than Dylan. He’s at another level, and Rodriguez, while good, is several levels below. But Rodriguez has his moments. The awfulness of war and the thanklessness of medals has been batted about by artists for a century. In Dylan’s “John Brown,” it’s the protagonist’s mother who urges her son off to war to get medals. There, he realizes he’s a puppet in a play and when he returns, injured, he tells her so. This is the last stanza:
When he turned away to go, his mother acting slow,
As she saw that metal brace that helped him stand.
But as they turned to leave, he pulled his mother close,
And he dropped his medals down into her hand.
Rodriguez’s take, from “Cause,” is also about mothers and sons, but feels truer and more poignant:
Oh but they’ll play those token games
On Willie Thompson
And give a medal to replace the son
Of Mrs. Annie Johnson
I keep thinking of these lines, too, from “Crucify Your Mind.” Any artist does. Any person does:
And you claim you got something going
Something you call “unique”
Thirty years later, Rodriguez still sounds vibrant and true. In “Searching for Sugar Man,” the people who knew, his record producers, still rack their brains about why he didn’t catch on. Should have I added more strings here? Less there?
But at one point, someone, I forget who, mentions his name: Rodriguez. They wonder if that’s the issue. They wonder if people dismissed him as Latin music. There’s no way to measure this, of course, or prove such a negative, but that’s my bet. I bet Americans thought that if they listened to someone called “Rodriguez” they would get Jose Feliciano, so they didn’t bother. But halfway around the world, people with less options had more open ears.
To me, that’s the great irony of the story of Rodriguez that “Searching for Sugar Man” doesn’t underline enough. A kind of veiled racism doomed Rodriguez in his home country; but talent and circumstances allowed him to prosper in a country that had the one of the most racist governments, and one of the most segregated societies, in the world.
Cause they told me everyone’s got to pay their dues
And I explained that I had overpaid them
Indeed. But the ending is happy, for both Rodriguez and South Africa. And for us.