Should documentaries stop searching for the next Sugar Man?

Should documentaries stop searching for the next Sugar Man?

Searching For Sugar Man begins on a portentous note. Dark shots of Detroit set a scene of destitution and desolation. The incidental music is melodramatically ominous, something entirely suited to, say, The Amazing Spider-Man or Clash Of The Titans. Soon a parade of talking heads begin introducing the documentary’s subject: Detroit native Sixto Rodriguez, better known as simply Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter who recorded two obscure albums in the early ’70s before effectively disappearing from the music scene. One of the talking heads is the legendary Motown guitarist and funk producer Dennis Coffey, who says in an awestruck voice that fits the film’s background music, “The only writer that I had heard of, of that time period, was Bob Dylan, who was writing that well.”

The next Dylan: It’s a whopping claim that’s been made so many times about so many singer-songwriters, it’s become a cliché. Coffey is certainly entitled to his opinion. And he isn’t alone; the gist of Searching For Sugar Man is how the forgotten Rodriguez experienced a huge revival—unbeknown to Rodriguez himself—in, of all places, South Africa. But as good as Dylan? When listened to without the backstory to tug at the heartstrings, Rodriguez’s music is strong—about as a strong as a hundred other post-Dylan singer-songwriters who released obscure albums in the early ’70s.

Like Rodriguez, these songwriters are being constantly unearthed and reassessed. This month, the late Sid Selvidge—father of The Hold Steady’s guitarist Steve Selvidge—is getting his lost ’70s singer-songwriter masterpiece, The Cold Of The Morning, lovingly re-released. As it should. In all genres from all eras of recorded music, lost artists like Rodriguez and Selvidge abound. In fact, there are far more of them than there are success stories. The problem is, in an effort to compensate for these injustices of fate, documentarians run the risk of overcompensating.

Luckily for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul, Rodriguez comes with a stirring, built-in success story that actually resonates beyond a small circle of obscure music collectors. Such is not the case with another 2012 documentary about a neglected Detroit act of the ’70s, the proto-punk band Death. A Band Called Death has its moments of poignancy, and there’s no denying that these three brothers—who grew up surrounded by Motown but chose to worship The Who—made some incredibly powerful and innovative music. But the narrative that resulted from the film was that Death invented punk, which is as overreaching a claim as saying Rodriguez was second only to Dylan. Proto-punk, as it became retroactively known, was embodied by many bands that formed slightly before, or at roughly the same time, as The Ramones in the early ’70s. That fact doesn’t make Death less interesting—it makes the band more so, part of a proto-punk continuum rather than lone outliers. And when the underlying theme of A Band Called Death becomes “No one knew what to make of these African-American men playing rock ’n’ roll!”, it ignores all the many people of color who played rock (punk and otherwise) in the ’70s. That lack of context not only makes the film myopic, it implicitly paints Death as a novelty. Which it never was. When the current members of the reunited Death hit the comeback trail—conceived after the documentary was already in production—it feels as though the documentary is driving the band rather than the other way around.

Music documentaries about obscure artists have never been as prevalent as they are now. That prevalence may be why so many of the recent ones have begun to blur into a single story with only the faces and music changed. Released a decade ago, The Nomi Song is an example of how beautiful such a film can be when it tailors its form to fit its subject. A chronicle of the life of Klaus Nomi—a German immigrant and pastry chef who reinvented himself in the downtown scene of late-’70s/early-’80s New York as an operatic, new-wave alien—the documentary incorporates many stock elements of the talking-head/archival-footage-based documentary while mixing in elements of B-movie camp and pop-art splash. The Nomi Song is structured not only with sympathy for Nomi as a person, but also with empathy for Nomi as an artist—one who both triumphed and failed.

Nomi died of AIDS on August 6, 1983—three days after Jobriath, a pioneering gay glam-rocker whose bid for stardom in the ’70s spectacularly fizzled, died the same way. But Jobriath A.D., a 2012 documentary devoted to him, is a glib, lackluster overview that elides and lionizes in all the wrong the places. Other recent films that are executed with similarly mixed results are 2011’s Last Days Here, about Bobby Liebling of the long-running cult proto-metal band Pentagram, and the documentary that kicked off the recent wave, 2008’s Anvil! The Story Of Anvil. What made Anvil! so bracing at the time of its release was a reinvigorated enthusiasm for the exhumation of lost-in-time musicians—especially those who, like the members of the stalwart Canadian metal band Anvil, actually had a viable shot at the big time. Anvil toured with Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax in 1984, and its story is made more vivid by the distance between that high point and the depths the band had since fallen to. There’s some proper context given, even if it’s a leap to say that Anvil’s cartoonish power-metal—a far cry from the groundbreaking thrash of its ’84 tourmates—could have possibly resulted in anything other than obscurity.

Anvil! remains compelling, as does Anvil itself. But in hindsight, the film’s faults are more apparent: the conflicts that feel clumsily forced, the band members hamming up their humanity, the narrative arc that’s overwhelmingly shaped by the presence of the filmmakers themselves. That isn’t entirely Anvil!’s fault. So many subsequent films have slapped Anvil!’s template on top of whatever obscure musician it chooses, it’s hard to see how refreshing the movie was at the time. The poignant perseverance of three Canadian metalheads now looks like just more grist for the quirk mill.

The problem with this kind of hyperbolic filmmaking, ironically, is that it overshadows the best qualities that obscure artists truly possess. While these artists sometimes live tragic lives, their obscurity isn’t a tragedy in and of itself. They’re usually obscure for a reason: They didn’t make music that was palatable to people at the time, or they weren’t able to devote the relentless energy it takes to become famous, or they simply did what millions of musicians do every day: create music for the love of it. By elevating them to the dubious status of noble losers, this new wave of documentaries perpetuates an empty myth that doesn’t do them justice. Even worse, it flattens them, forcing the unique, idiosyncratic art and lives of these musicians into a premade mold—a formula that hits all the requisite notes of innovation, obscurity, tragedy, and redemption. Nothing about the music of Rodriguez or Death or Pentagram is formulaic. When searching for the next Sugar Man—which filmmakers will doubtlessly continue to do—here’s hoping they’ll be more open to letting their subjects play lead.

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