Two documentaries that cast eyes back to South African apartheid and speak to music’s healing power have shared the spotlight at the Sundance Film Festival this week among a wide selection of movies about songs, singers and musicians.
Nonfiction films “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” in which rapper and actor Ice-T interviews Eminem, Nas, Snoop Dogg and others about the roots of hip hop, and “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” about LCD Soundsystem’s last concert in New York, have focused on music.
“Filly Brown,” about a female hip hop artist, “California Solo” in which Robert Carlyle plays a washed up rock star, and “I Am Not A Hipster,” about a tortured singer songwriter, were among fictional films about the lives of musicians.
But it was singer-songwriter Paul Simon who captured the media spotlight with the premiere of documentary “Under African Skies,” and another nonfiction film “Searching for Sugar Man” that wowed crowds here. Both of them are linked to South Africa.
“Under African Skies,” recounts the making of Simon’s groundbreaking 1986 album “Graceland” and shows Simon returning to South Africa where he recorded much of the acclaimed record that sparked controversy for breaking a cultural boycott of that country due to apartheid policies.
The film shows footage of original recording sessions from “Graceland” in South Africa and chronicles Simon’s 2011 reunion with the album’s musicians for a 25th anniversary concert.
The film makes the case that the album and resulting concert tour were overwhelming forces in bringing together people of various races and that political attacks against Simon by groups including the African National Congress were unwarranted.
“The ‘Graceland’ phenomenon really came from a musical source and didn’t have an overt political point of view,” Simon told the Sundance audience about recording in South Africa. “I am actually saying, ‘I have no regard for the structures of apartheid, I am here purely on a musical basis.'”
The film cuts back-and-forth between Simon’s 2011 reunion trip and the original “Graceland” recording sessions, offering insight into how hit songs like “You can call me Al” were assembled after Simon was inspired by South African music groups including Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“My first impulse was to go where the music was and the musicians that I wanted to play with, and I didn’t know how it was going to come out,” Simon, now 70, told the audience.
“What happened with Graceland in becoming a worldwide hit was that the traditional music of South Africa became hip all over the world and South Africa began to take pride in what was a musical form that they considered old hat, really,” he said.
“SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN”
In stark contrast to Simon’s success as an artist, there is the story of an obscure, 1970s Detroit folk singer known as Rodriguez, who is the focus of “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Producers of his only two albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality,” considered Rodriguez better than Bob Dylan with his poetic lyrics protesting racial and economic inequality. He wrote about a hard life on the streets of Detroit.
His records failed to sell in the United States.
The film about him has won standing ovations from cheering, tearful audiences at Sundance where many have said it was among the best movies they had seen.
“Searching for Sugar Man” begins in South Africa where the folk singer’s song, “Sugar Man”, was banned on the radio and he became an enigmatic, cult hero in the 1970s to a mostly white, liberal crowd spurred by his anti-establishment message in their questioning of apartheid.
Yet, after his two albums bombed in the U.S., Rodriguez faded into obscurity, never recording again nor knowing about his success in South Africa.
A record retailer in that country, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman termed him, “bigger than Elvis,” and set about searching for the Mexican-American singer rumored to have shot himself or set himself afire on stage.
“It’s been quite a journey to make this film, it took five years,” said director Malik Bendjelloul who painstakingly uses grainy footage, animation and interviews to reconstruct Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew’s quest to find out what happened to the singer and his royalties. The film’s soundtrack utilizes the folk singer’s songs.
“We knew nothing, his name never cropped up anywhere,” Segerman said of the search. “There was a mythology around this man for 30 years.”
And in a strange twist of Sundance fate, Segerman believes one reason Rodriguez’s first album never took off was because it was released near the same time as Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon’s seminal smash hit, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”