Searching for Sugar Man (A)
Sweden: Malik Bendjelloul, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
One of my favorite movies of the past year is a documentary by a new young Swedish filmmaker about a little-known (at least here) American musician of the '70s. It's called Searching for Sugar Man -- and it's a rock 'n' roll chronicle of a great singer/guitarist/songwriter about whom you've probably never heard named Rodriguez.
Back in the early '70s, he recorded two albums of his own songs -- 1970's Cold Fact and 1971's Coming From Reality, both of which had memorable music and strong guitar-playing and sharp, deeply poetic, socially hip lyrics (in the Bob Dylan mode) and both of which received very favorable reviews from critics. But they both flopped commercially, Rodriguez lost his recording contract (with Sussex), and his career seemed to vanish, along with Rodriguez himself.
Except in South Africa, where bootlegs of Rodriguez's albums began to circulate among the country's youthful music-lovers, where the records were eventually released by local entrepreneurs (who didn't know where Rodriguez was either), and where the socially conscious balladeer became a superstar as big as Elvis or the Beatles, and as admired as them, or Dylan or Springsteen -- and, for the youth of the country, especially the white youth, also a pop cultural symbol of resistance to racism and apartheid.
Rodriguez's song "I Wonder" became an anthem of the anti-apartheid generation, much as Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" had been an American anthem of the anti-war movement. In South Africa, Cold Fact was one of the three most popular of the era. (The others were Abbey Road and Bridge Over Troubled Water.) Without a huge hype machine, or a publicity apparatus of any kind, with only a few pictures of the star himself circulating (accenting his charismatic Latino looks, long black hair, dark glasses and air of gravity), he nevertheless conquered his audience, at least in South Africa. And, in one of the most curious twists of a tale full of them, he never knew of these triumphs while they were happening.
In the void of actual information, unsubstantiated stories began to circulate about the singer and his mysterious disappearance, including urban legends that he had committed suicide on stage after his last concert, by gunshot or by setting himself on fire. But what was the truth, the cold facts? Rodriguez's loyal fans and aficionados began increasingly to wonder, including the South African critic/music man who wrote the notes for the 1990's release of Coming from Reality, Stephen "Sugar Man" Segerman (his nickname comes from Rodriguez's song "Sugar Man"), who called in the notes for information about the pop idol's death or fate.
Another writer, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, began to scour the Internet, looking for clues and witnesses. Finally he found out what happened, and where Rodriquez had gone. And Strydom and later filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul found out what kind of person had written and sung and played those songs -- and never apparently profited from them, while they were helping change a country half a world away.
Searching for Sugar Man is partly a fascinating mystery-detective story, and it's far more enjoyable if some mystery remains.
To Rome With Love (A-)
U.S.: Woody Allen, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Woody Allen puts himself back on the screen in To Rome With Love -- playing an old fool -- and I think the part has possibilities. Allen's character, which he plays to addled perfection, is Jerry, a retired, right-wing malcontent opera director-producer married to Phyllis (Judy Davis) and traveling to Rome for the wedding of their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill). Jerry, kvetching away, discovers that Hayley's fiancé, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), is very Euro-left-wing and that his daughter's prospective father-in-law, undertaker Giancarlo, is a brilliant amateur opera singer (played by the brilliant professional opera singer Fabio Armiliato) and that he sings brilliantly, but only when he's in the shower. So…
Coming right after Midnight in Paris, the biggest commercial hit of Allen's career -- and an unusual (for him these days) critical hit as well -- To Rome With Love tries to catch some of the same magic, milk the same Euro-delight. For me, it does. Like Midnight in Paris, it's a combination travelogue and comic romantic fantasy satire -- except that, in this case, Allen has concocted four funny episodes, instead of concentrating on just one.
It's somewhat like the Italian all-star anthology films of the '50s and '60s, omnibus movies like Yesterday Today and Tomorrow (with three segments by director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, all starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni ) and Boccaccio '70 (four episodes directed by De Sica, Fellini, Visconti and Mario Monicelli, all with different casts).
But instead of showing the separate episodes one after the other, Allen has interwoven them like a Robert Altman ensemble piece.
In one of the funniest episodes, Alec Baldwin plays (very amusingly) a famous, brilliant architect named John, who runs across a young talented but unknown architect named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who is a big fan of John's and who may also be his younger self. Just like Jerry Lacy's "Spirit of Humphrey Bogart" in Play It Again, Sam, John, who seems invisible to everyone but Jack, keeps hanging around offering sardonic and rude advice about how to conduct his love life -- as Jack shuttles irresponsibly around Rome between nice girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and Sally's even more irresponsible love-me-I'm-neurotic best friend, actress Monica (Ellen Page).
In the third episode, a little nobody named Leopoldo (played by Roberto Benigni), suddenly becomes a big somebody: a media darling and a paparazzi magnet, pursued and harassed and photographed and interviewed everywhere, for no special reason beyond the fact that the media world has decided to treat him like a celebrity. (He's "famous for being famous," according to one character.) This brief fable shows us Allen at his most profound.
In the last episode, the most Italian-vignettish of them all, Penelope Cruz plays drop-dead gorgeous lady-of-the-evening Anna, here working in the afternoon: a superbabe in a skintight red minidress who somehow gets her dance card mixed up and winds up in the posh Roman apartment of a crushingly nave honeymooner from the provinces, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) -- at the same time Antonio's sweet beautiful little wife Milly (Alessandra Mostranardi) gets lost in Rome, and winds up in the arms of hot-blooded movie matinee idol Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese, seething), as well as in part of the plot of Fellini's classic The White Sheik.
Meanwhile, when his relatives show up, none of whom have seen Milly, Antonio tries to pretend that Anna is his wife, and she tries to pretend that she's not everybody's favorite fantasy hooker -- despite the fact that a lot of the bigwigs they bump into include a lot of regulars on her prime client list. And there's also a randy hotel burglar running around. This is what they call commedia dell 'arte, or French bedroom farce, or maybe commedia all'italia. But all I can say is: It made me laugh.
The four episodes share a common theme. They're about the perilous consequence of wish fulfillment, or of answered prayers, spoken or unspoken. The four mini-movies are all done in Allen's usual dryly classical, deadpan elegant long-take style, shot by Darius Khondji, filled with crisp, witty, on-the-nose and super-bright dialogue. And the cast is the tops, especially Baldwin, Cruz, Armiliato, Benigni -- and Allen.