The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 22, 2013

Jeremiah Tucker: Documentaries give musicians their due

By Jeremiah Tucker
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Despite the fact that it's nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards this Sunday, "Searching for Sugar Man" can sometimes feel like science fiction.

In America, Detroit native Sixto Rodriguez's music career ended after exactly two albums of moody, ruminative and occasionally gorgeous folk-rock. Meanwhile, in South Africa, Rodriguez -- his stage name as well as his surname -- became an icon more popular than the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan.

He was the voice of the counter-culture, his songs of social commentary the soundtrack for the anti-Apartheid movement. He sold more than 500,000 records.

Rodriguez's stature in South Africa was the inverse of his standing in his home country, as if some alternate-universe version of himself lived on the other side of the world, providing a poignant counterpoint to everything he failed to accomplish in America. It could be an episode of "The Twilight Zone."

But what really did happen to Rodriguez?

That's the question that "Searching for Sugar Man," out now on DVD, attempts to answer. No one in South Africa -- not the music journalists or the record executives profiting off his songs -- knew anything about Rodriguez's life. Even how his music first came to South Africa is unclear. Of his eventual fate -- the rumors were that he either blew his head off on stage or overdosed.

It's best to go into this documentary possessing no knowledge of Rodriguez. And unless you encounter a news item related to this documentary, it's unlikely you do.

For one, you'll likely find the music revelatory. Considering American audiences at the time were embracing all manner of dubious, sentimental singer-songwriter pap from the likes of Harry Chapin, Jim Croce and Don McClean, it is especially criminal that Rodriguez failed so miserably here.

At its best, Rodriguez's music resembles that of Bill Withers, another working-class singer-songwriter who is earthy and natural. If Rodriguez's self-conscious lyricism is sometimes clunky, he's a good performer with a nice voice, and his songs are often sturdy enough to support the occasionally indulgent lyrics.

The other reason to go in unspoiled is the documentary is deliciously manipulative, dropping red herrings and withholding information like a "Dateline" murder mystery, but with much better cinematography. It's also nice to watch people solve a pop-culture conundrum that requires more work than a few Google searches, especially when the goal is to bring deserved recognition to a decent man, even if it arrived a few decades late.

'Better Than Something:  Jay Reatard'

The fate of Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. -- the garage-rock savant better known by his stage name Jay Reatard -- always seemed fraught. Lindsey was famously volatile, self-sabotaging and hard-charging.

From the opening scenes of "Better Than Something: Jay Reatard," it's clear our hero doesn't make it out alive. He died in 2010 of a cocaine overdose a few weeks before his 30th birthday and a few months after filmmakers Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz filmed a series of intimate interviews with him.

In my opinion, the two albums and two compilations of singles Lindsey made as Jay Reatard are among the very best rock 'n' roll of the past 25 years, and when ranking punk heroes, he belongs with the likes of the Ramones and Nirvana. He was that good, which makes "Better Than Something" both fascinating and disappointing.

The documentary, also out now on DVD, began as a short feature film in 2009, likely meant to capitalize on Lindsey's notorious stage antics -- one of which, detailed in the documentary, involved biting off the head of a pigeon mid-concert.

And "Better Than Something" likely worked better in that format because the best parts all involve Lindsey. The amiable, natural storyteller talks about his wretched, impoverished childhood in Memphis, his plans for the future and his opinions on music.

The documentary doesn't attempt to give a satisfactory conclusion to why Lindsey, who appeared to be getting his life together, spiraled out of control in the end. In fact, this is the rare documentary that I wish was a bit more worshipful of its subject. Instead, it maintains a relatively cool distance, letting Lindsey, his family and friends tell his story, rarely demonstrating the breadth of his songwriting talent or digging into what made him more than another punk musician who died young.

Luckily, his music can still do that for him.