A Rational Conversation: Amoeba's Music-Doc Obsessive John Garcia Searches For Meaning in 'Sugar Man''s Oscar Win...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Searching for Sugar Man, the film about the musician Rodriguez’s unexpected and devoted following in South Africa, entered this past weekend’s Academy Awards as the favorite to win for Best Documentary Feature. It ended up getting the Oscar, defeating films about a Palestinian family in the West Bank, Israel’s secret service agency, the AIDS awareness movement in the 1980s, and the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military – heavy stuff all around. Music provides steady subject matter for documentaries, but rarely do these films receive the critical attention of Searching for Sugar Man and its level of awards-getting is kinda insane. Ducker spoke with John Garcia, Head of New Product Buying of Amoeba Music in San Francisco about music documentaries, and Searching for Sugar Man's place in this subgenre.
Eric Ducker: Do you follow the Oscars and the lead up to it, and all the politicking that goes on?
John Garcia: To some degree. I usually hear about the fierce competition and backbiting that goes into the larger categories, but not so much for the smaller categories like Best Documentary.
ED: Were you familiar with the films that were nominated for Best Documentary this year?
JG: I was familiar with them, but as it turns out, the only one I ended up seeing was Searching for Sugar Man.
ED: When did you see it?
JG: I saw it last fall. There was a special screening that Sony Classics set up here in San Francisco, which they presumably also did elsewhere.
ED: I know that it was the only nominated film that you saw, but do you think it was Oscar-worthy?
JG: I had not thought about it in those terms when I saw it. I knew some things about Rodriguez before I saw the film, and had heard the reissues of his albums. He even played at the store here a few years ago. But the story and they way it was told drew me in. And while I was not thinking about the Oscars when I saw it, I could see that aspects of the story – the humility and underdog status of the protagonist, and the way they slowly revealed the details of his life – would be something that would appeal to Academy voters.
ED: Do you think it’s surprising that a music documentary received this much attention?
JG: Yes, it is unusual. The first music documentary that won an Oscar was in 1969, twenty-something years after the category was created. There have been precious few nominees since then, much less winners. But, certainly the story with Searching for Sugar Man was unique and managed to capture people’s attention in an almost word of mouth kind of way.
ED: What won in 1969?
JG: It was a documentary on the pianist Arthur Rubinstein called Arthur Rubinstein – The Love of Life; the winner the year after that was Woodstock. That was it until 1986, when Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got about the jazz clarinetist tied with another movie.
ED: Searching For Sugar Man is an interesting documentary because it could have been part of this micro-genre about fringe-y musicians with cult followings-like The Devil and Daniel Johnston, or You’re Gonna Miss Me about Roky Erickson. Instead, I think the director Malik Bendjelloul did a smart thing in terms of getting attention and creating broader appeal for it by not really focusing that much on Rodriguez as a person; he comes off more as kind of a spirit, or mythic figure. I wonder if the documentary presented a more complex picture of him, would it be as loved by as many people?
JG: I knew Rodriguez was still alive, but the way they talked about him prior to his appearance in the window built suspense about what we might discover next. They even prepared us for the fact that he may have truly met a tragic end. Rodriguez’s taciturn nature certainly placed the onus of telling his story on others who were more than eager to do so. This story also reminded me a bit of the documentary Jandek on Corwood, about the obscure Texas artist, Jandek. He released a series of mostly solo recordings featuring his eccentric singing and guitar playing, but the albums had very little info beyond the titles and a P.O. box. Jandek never played live, and had only done two interviews at that point. He was also kind of a ghost in his own story, but the film did not garner massive buzz. I’m not sure that it had much of a theatrical lifespan; I was aware of it only as a DVD. But after it came out, Jandek perversely started doing limited gigs for the first time ever. Come to think of it, the Nick Drake documentary, A Skin Too Few, which came out many years ago, had those spectral qualities, too.
ED: A lot to of the criticism I’ve read of Searching for Sugar Man, and that I’ve had myself, is often qualified with, “I love Rodriguez’s music, and he deserves the attention this will bring him “ before finding issue with the director’s approach and the South Africans who did the “searching.” Every documentary is dependent on how the story is told or framed, but since Rodriguez doesn’t have a strong presence within the film, that really becomes obvious in Searching for Sugar Man.
JG: Yes, there was a vague sense they were doing him a favor. Rodriguez’s non-appearance at the Oscars ceremony seemed to complete that picture; he was not even mentioned until the very end. But the film was skillful at both creating and spoon-feeding the viewer’s curiosity about the subject. I guess that’s worth something.
ED: Did you think it’s strange that there was no real indication in the film that all this searching was happening in the late 1990s until they showed the camcorder footage of him in South Africa and it was time-stamped with the date?
JG: Yes, that did seem odd. Do you imagine that part of the story may have been “enhanced,” shall we say?
ED: Yeah, that felt pretty manipulative to me. But it did help make more sense out of why a journalist in South Africa was having such a hard time figuring out that Rodriguez was alive. Nowadays, with the Internet being what it is, they could have come to that conclusion much earlier and easier.
JG: Yes, documentaries like this are going to be harder to make in the future. They would be over in about five minutes.
ED: Anvil! was talked about as a potential best documentary nominee a few years back. I wonder if it would have happened if there was an even more triumphant ending.
JG: That’s probably what would have made all of the difference. Also, as colorful as Anvil were/are, they’re scruffier than the Academy would like. That is one reason the Lemmy documentary would never have had a shot either.
ED: What are some of the best music documentaries you think have been overlooked through the years, regardless of the Academy’s usual tastes?
JG: I thought the A Tribe Called Quest documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life, was really good. Also, the Bob Marley documentary, Marley, told his story (nearly) warts and all. There is a great documentary called My Name Is Albert Ayler from 2007 about the late, great saxophonist whose death remains a mystery; that never seemed to get adequate distribution or notice. The same is true of a more recent film, Sunny’s Time Now, about the irascible avant-garde jazz drummer, Sunny Murray, who played with Ayler, John Coltrane and others. The only way to get that film is via mail order from its distributor in Luxembourg. I think it had some European theatrical distribution that quickly evaporated. It might have something to do with trying to sell the soundtrack of what some would consider “difficult” music. Still, they are great stories. Going way back, despite certain reservations, I always thought The Last Waltz should have gotten more formal recognition. But then concert films seem to have no shot whatsoever.
ED: Aside from Woodstock.
ED: I love The Last Waltz, even knowing the backstory about Robbie Robertson’s eagerness and Levon Helms’ displeasure. I think The Decline of Western Civilization is amazing, but the idea of that getting industry acceptance in 1981 is insane.
JG: Yeah, Decline certainly had a checkered past. The screening I saw of it on the UC Berkeley campus was interrupted by a bomb threat. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure. It is not a musical genre I am into, but I always get really empathetic towards some of the folks in the film once you get passed the bravado. I liked the Minutemen movie We Jam Econo a lot, too, for different reasons.
ED: People are having this argument about Argo right now, especially in comparison to Zero Dark Thirty, but do you think Searching For Sugar Man will have a growing audience and lasting impact past right now? In ten years, will people consider it a great documentary, or even a great music documentary?
JG: I’m not sure it will be regarded as a classic even within its genre. Looking at it from the perspective of the marketplace, Rodriquez’s sales of his reissued albums saw a huge spike, particularly on vinyl, around the time of the movie’s release; then the soundtrack came out, and that was another big seller. Part of the interest there was the fact that it contained “new” material. When the DVD came out a few weeks ago, however, its sales were marginal. They have been steady, but there was not a great surge to own it. In fact, since the Oscars, we have sold one copy of the soundtrack and zero of the DVD.