Sixto Rodriguez was supposed to be the next Bob Dylan. In one corner of the world, unknown to him for decades, he was.
The bizarre story of an eccentric Mexican-American musician from Detroit who achieved superstardom in Cape Town, South Africa, is told in “Searching for Sugar Man,” first-time director Malik Bendjelloul’s captivating documentary.
Structured somewhat disingenuously as a whatever-happened-to? story, “Sugar Man” is the tale of a guitar-strumming singer-songwriter known by his surname.
In the late 1960s, he played the grittier bars of Detroit, performing soulful, folksy protest songs with his back to the audience.
Rodriguez recorded two fine albums, both commercial flops, and vanished, a no-hit wonder whose potential and talent still haunt the producers and music execs interviewed in “Sugar Man.”
If they only knew...
In the early ’70s a Rodriguez album made its way to a party in Cape Town. With its anti-establishment fervor, sexy lyrics, drug references (the song “Sugar Man” is about a dealer) and ear-worm melodies, the LP caught fire among teenagers seething under a censorious government.
Rodriguez’s albums sold hundreds of thousands there. Rumors swirled of his tragic onstage suicide. Two decades later, a couple of devotees began an Internet search to find the singer who had become a household name.
With neither a clue nor a penny earned from his far-flung success, Rodriguez had raised a family on the meager wages of a manual laborer in Detroit. A series of comeback concerts in South Africa are triumphant, and he has a spot on the bill of this summer’s Newport Folk Festival.
Enigmatic, bemused and rail-thin in black, the singer arrives onscreen midway through “Sugar Man.” He’s worth the wait. His music, heard throughout the film and now available on iTunes, is earnest, trippy and often lovely.
“Searching for Sugar Man,” from Sony Pictures Classics, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: **** (Evans)
Odds are that a troublemaker ornery enough to make himself a thorn in the side of the Chinese government is no dream to get along with, but in “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” the dissident artist comes off as likable and funny.
Professionally speaking, he has to. Publicity is essential to what he does. Ai’s artistic and his political work, which are intertwined, depend on his genius for branding, molding his image in the media. So he grasped the value of the access he gave first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman -- to them both.
Klayman has put together a lucid, entertaining documentary that lays out Ai’s biography while offering tastes of his artistic production and messy personal life.
His father was a celebrated poet who fell out of favor with Chairman Mao. Ai himself spent a dozen years in New York, from 1981 to 1993. (We see a picture of him with Allen Ginsberg.) He has a young son whose mother isn’t his wife.
My main complaint: too much politics, too little art. We see many of Ai’s projects, but they’re barely discussed (though to be fair, most of them aren’t difficult to grasp).
He’s fond of broad gestures. A series of photos records his hand -- on Tiananmen Square, for example -- with a raised middle finger.
For the exhibition “So Sorry,” he hung 9,000 kids’ backpacks on Munich’s Haus der Kunst to commemorate the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake as a result of shoddy school construction.
Chinese characters on a blue background spell out the words of a bereaved parent: “She lived happily on this earth for seven years.” The cheerful primary colors butt up against the sorrow, creating a monumental image that’s hard to shake.
It would have been good to hear more discussion of this and other work. But I can think of worse things to say about a documentary than that it leaves you wanting more.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” from Sundance Selects, is playing in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington. Rating: **** (Seligman)
Does she have a long-form birth certificate?
Don’t ask such earthbound questions of “Ruby Sparks,” the whimsical and satisfying romantic fantasy starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.
Written by Kazan and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), “Ruby Sparks” is the smart girl’s take on the Pygmalion/Galatea myth.
Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a shy, cardigan-wearing writer who’s been coasting for a decade on his sole novel, a “Catcher in the Rye”-type opus penned in his youth.
As an unblocking exercise suggested by his therapist (a welcome Elliott Gould), the lonely Cal begins writing about his ideal woman. Suddenly random, un-male items begin showing up in the bachelor’s apartment -- a high-heel here, a bra there.
Enter Ruby, the flesh and blood soulmate Cal has imagined into existence. She’s real -- everyone can see her, including Cal’s stunned sounding-board brother (Chris Messina), his hippie mom (Annette Bening) and mom’s sculptor boyfriend (Antonio Banderas, the only false note in the cast).
Like Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Ruby Sparks” is about romance and disappointment, not the butterfly-effect ramifications of remaking the universe’s rules. Ponder any one detail --- the film’s more languorous, self-conscious stretches provide the time -- and “Ruby” comes undone.
As a quirky (and ultimately chilling) meditation on male desire and demands, “Ruby Sparks” is riveting.
Despite his pledge to let Ruby be Ruby, Cal can’t resist tinkering, and everything he writes about her (and her cloying moods) comes true. “Ruby Sparks” shows evidence of a similar heavy hand, but it’s hard not to feel smitten.
“Ruby Sparks,” from Fox Searchlight, is playing in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington. Rating: ***1/2 (Evans)
“The Watch” can’t blame everything on atrocious timing.
Renamed from its working title “Neighborhood Watch” after the Trayvon Martin shooting, this alien-invasion/bromantic comedy mash-up would be a slapdash drag even without scenes of bedroom gun arsenals and bullets pumped point-blank into wounded creatures.
Director Akiva Schaffer (a “Saturday Night Live” writer), with a patched-together script by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jared Stern, updates the “Ghostbusters” theme with penis jokes, carnage, sentiment and product placement.
Ben Stiller phones it in as Evan, the manager of a suburban Ohio Costco who organizes a neighborhood watch after his store’s security guard is slaughtered by something slimy.
In on the hunt for invaders are a fast-talking loudmouth (Vince Vaughn doing his usual), a chunky, maladjusted cop-wannabe (Jonah Hill, ditto) and a quirky, Brit-accented hipster (Richard Ayoade, destined for better) whose race delights the diversity-minded Evan (“I’m in the market for a black friend”).
Nearly an hour of fratty jibber-jabber passes before we get a look at the uninvited guest. Ineptly staged fight scenes are more spaghetti Western than “Prometheus.”
The us-versus-them humor occasionally drops its warm-hearted facade. Is that creepy neighbor an alien -- or gay? And wouldn’t it be a hoot to have our drunken heroes pose for obscene snapshots with an alien corpse?
“The Watch,” from Twentieth Century Fox, is playing across the U.S. Rating: * (Evans)
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Good * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are their own.)
Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on books and Jorg von Uthmann on art.