OK, so I’m about to start this post by talking about something I really don’t come out of well. It’s an opinion I’ve held for a few weeks now but I’ve been scared to offer it in public or online as I know it makes me look bad. So, before I even type it, let’s acknowledge how it will likely be received. Chances are, it’ll make me look either bitter or obstinately contrary. I understand this and will spend a couple of paragraphs justifying the opinion but for now, I’ll accept the outcome and just damn well say something that needs to be said…
Searching For Sugar Man is a fucking shitty film.
There, I said it. It’s a total piece of shit. I’m so sick of seemingly sane people singing its praises. It’s a piece of shit. Why might that opinion paint me as contrary? Well, it has a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes – that’s hard to go against the grain on. Everyone – critics and audiences alike – undeniably love this film. And why does it colour me bitter? Well, because my own music documentary (http://www.acpgthemovie.com) came out around the same time, also deals with the cruelty of the music industry, and whilst Sugar Man has gone on to be seen my millions and get Oscar nominated, mine has… not. I could claim not to be bitter but few would believe me and, honestly, I wouldn’t believe me either. But the bitterness is not why I hated this film.
I hate Searching For Sugar Man for several reasons. I was excited to see it but quickly realised how insidious I found it. Firstly, it’s a dishonest film. A dishonest documentary. It’s constructed and marketed in a strange way. There is an implication that the filmmakers themselves are conducting the search for Rodriguez. We even believe this as the film is going on. When they finally find the man, it’s exciting. We are shown glimpses of him through a window as if the excited camera crew have started rolling before they even ring the doorbell. When we finally get an interview with the man, he is almost silent, clearly awkward being filmed. As you would be if you had lived out of the limelight for decades. But then the truth is slowly leaked out as quitely as possible, purely because it’s unavoidable. That truth is that Sugar Man had actually been found some 15 years earlier and hasn’t been missing at all since he’s been touring and performing again for well over a decade. Not only that, but there was nothing exclusive about the central interview. He has been doing interviews over the years for other people and the interviews he’s done in the wake of the film have been far more eloquent and engaging.
Documentary is a tough proposal. There is no such thing as truth, there is only perspective. But the filmmaker is honour bound to either serve to honestly document or to use the footage to clearly express a point of view. To document or polemicize. Not to manipulate an emotional response for the sake of gravitas. The truth is that, had it been constructed honestly, it wouldn’t have been so engaging for its audience. The SEARCH is more important than the Sugar Man. Had the timeline and editing been conducted honestly, it would have merely been a far less interesting or charming version of Anvil: The Story of Anvil – which is an amazingly bold and honest film.
Searching For Sugar Man is akin to that clip of Susan Boyle singing I Dreamed a Dream on whatever shitty Simon Cowell monstrosity that appeared on. A pretty uncommentable everyday event edited and presented in such a way as to illicit an emotional response. I guess ACPG taught me that the bulk of great musicians don’t get rich and famous, maybe Sugar Man was the film that taught that to the world and their response to that injustice was to mistake emotional manipulation for great filmmaking. It’s a shitty film.
Anyway, it got me thinking about amazing music documentaries that haven’t had the appreciation they deserve and there’s a couple that I particularly wanted to turn your head towards. I think what unites them is that their subjects are particularly, distinctly, uncool. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the reason they have been overlooked. It’s an easy mistake to make – why would you want to see a documentary about a band/performer you don’t like? Well, that’s a problem unique to music doc as we’re happy to watch political and social docs about people we hate. I suppose the assumption is that anything made about such performers will be record company fluff but the two films I really want to recommend are by very well established and respected documentary directors and you should check them out regardless of your feelings about the performers.
SHUT UP AND SING (2006)
I know, right? Who’d want to watch a film about the Dixie Chicks? Syrupy country rock pop bleurgh. I had less than no interest in this film before I caught the trailer on some other DVD. My mistake. I’ve watched the film several times since. This isn’t a film about the band, it’s a film about Bush’s America. It’s a film about the corporate stranglehold over the media and it’s a film about how the concept of free speech is misunderstood. The whole story stems from a single comment made by lead singer Natalie Maines on stage at a gig in London at the height of the Iraq war. She says that the band is ashamed that George Bush is from Texas. Whilst they carry on their European jaunt, word filters back to their homeland and a media storm is whipped up. A media storm over here is very different to one in America as it’s not just content that comes and goes, not only does it knock their careers off track as whole media conglomerates refuse to play their music but it also motivates the public to respond in very real ways. There are mass demonstrations and public displays of fury. Their ticket sales take a massive hit. Worse than this, death threats start to appear. We are in the band’s inner sanctum throughout this whole chain of events and, even if you have no time for their music, you grow to respect them intensely as people. There is a constant pressure for them to apologise, even from their friends and management, but they hold true. Their bravery is cast in stone when some very real death threats surface. The band decide to play a stadium gig, in the round, despite confirmed threats from a confirmed and unlocated psychopath that Maines will be shot to death if she goes on stage. This is not just an important social document but it’s edge-of-your-seat watching.
DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)
Have you seen Don’t Look Back? If you’re into music docs, you probably have. It documents Bob Dylan’s UK tour of 1965. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking. Usually we experience stardom and cultural shifts only through a filter. We’re told of cultural relevance retrospectively or analytically, we don’t get to experience it. That’s why so much of it now is fake. Marketing and media have learned how to emulate such documenting and create phenomenons themselves rather than wait for them to happen. But here, we get to experience it from the inside. We get to see Dylan’s fragility and bewilderment as he realises that he is no longer an ordinary man. The world has turned on its head and everyone wants a piece of him. We travel with him in cars as he pleads for someone to get teenage girls off the roof lest they get hurt. He finds normal interviews about his work turned into hostile encounters, having to defend himself from labels other people have put on him. Even his fans boo and jeer him as he tries to move his work on from traditional folk to rock. Everyone wants a piece of him. It’s exciting watching. You are witnessing history being written from a perspective rarely granted an audience. It’s rightly hailed as a classic and I shouldn’t therefore be recommending it to you, just by my own remit for this blog. But there is a reason I want you to remember, or at least, be familiar with it. it’s because I want to talk about what I consider one of the best music documentaries ever and you need to share my frame of reference for it.
Unfortunately I can’t find a single clip online for you but I’m telling you now to get hold of a copy of this film. The film starts as Geri Halliwell leaves the Spice Girls. The biggest character in the biggest band in the world. She starts keeping a video diary but – perhaps filled with hubris or an inflated ego – decides that this should be properly documented, so pulls in the UK’s most respected female documentary filmmaker. Molly Dineen. Dineen is one of my favourite filmmakers ever, she has an ability to become part of the story, her empathy and warmth endear her to her subjects in a very real way and allow her to present honestly without ever exploiting. Her most famous film is probably the incredible Home From The Hill about a retired colonel forced to leave the luxuries of his life in Africa for the realities of an impoverished UK pensioner. Dineen quickly becomes Halliwell’s only real human contact outside of her family. It is a worthy sequel to Don’t Look Back. It is shot in a very similar observational but immediate style and echoes the whirlwind/eye of the storm feeling. For the period that Dineen captures, Halliwell is the most sought after person in the world media, yet to be with her at this time is an unerringly lonely and confusing experience. When you watch this back-to-back with Don’t Look Back, it tells the story of how music and culture has changed but media and public hysteria have not. Dylan was a poet, an intelligence, a rare creature who deserved his attention. Halliwell was a corporate product, a puppet, a poor naive innocent. In her quieter moments we see her lack of wits and she is like a sweet child. There’s a bizarre scene in which she is spirited to New York to become an ambassador for the U.N. and as she sits in the meeting an awkwardness falls on the room as those around her realise she thinks she has been given the job because of her potential and ability rather than her fame. It’s observational documentary filmmaking at its best. Compulsive viewing which uses its subject to explore much wider issues. You can get it on Volume 3 of the Molly Dineen Collection DVDs released last year by the BFI. I recommend you buy all 3 volumes, there isn’t a bad film on them and volume 2, which features her TV series The Ark is breathtakingly good.
So, that’s that. Music documentary – it’s not the subject you should be concentrating on so much as the perspective. Of course if you really want to see that in action….