This is a spoiler alert. Read no further – go straight to the mad chefs of El Bulli (below) – if you want to delay knowing why Searching for Sugar Man is a head-spinning, signpost-turning, psyche-twirling treat: a music-culture Cinderella story to beat them all. I don’t want to be torn apart by pink-paper-perusing Maenads for spilling surprises I cannot proceed far without spilling. In the late 1960s – this paragraph and the next are safe – the Hispanic-American singer-songwriter Rodriguez was a minor folk music cult with a sweet, strong voice, Dylan-worthy lyrics (some said) and a well-reviewed but ill-selling debut album. He was a hit in smoky clubs with names like The Sewer. Back then the myth mill insisted he finally shot himself or even burned himself alive on stage. Why? How did that happen? And why was he, and is still, so big in South Africa?
Cut to Cape Town. Swedish-born documentarist Malik Bendjelloul tells the Rodriguez story through two intrigued South Africans who sleuthed it first, a record shop owner and “musicologist detective”. They couldn’t understand how a hippy-generation hero for apartheid-era rebel Afrikaners, a US singer who told it how it was about the evils of authority and the high cool of love, peace and marijuana, had vanished effectively in his native country. Rodriguez’s music had gone platinum in South Africa. In Los Angeles and American points east it had, well, just gone.
We learn with a cheekiness almost brilliant – Defcon-3 spoiler alert (you have three seconds to stop reading) – that Rodriguez is not only alive but well, the father of pretty daughters, a monosyllabist with a shy smile, and a law unto himself living out of a Detroit demi-hovel. His two hunter-interviewers, meeting him, say: “But don’t you know you’re huge in South Africa?” The rest is spellbinding history, surreal and enrapturing, as the resurrected folk hero visits the far continent. Think Norman Wisdom in Albania and multiply by infinity; though viewers should be warned that Bendjelloul takes a fair few liberties of omission (including an intervening Australian concert tour) to persuade us his protagonist’s story was the overnight peripeteia portrayed.
That still isn’t it, though. The film’s ace in the hole, its Zen howitzer, is that the hero doesn’t seem to give a damn. It is not that Rodriguez isn’t grateful. He thanks the crowd, signs the albums, even falls in love, we’re told, with his South African limo driver. But he is still at movie’s end, partially at least, the ensorcelling enigma of its beginning. A man too good for fame (though we learn he once ran for mayor of Detroit and came in 139th). Did his music ever rival Dylan’s? We doubt it. The songs are B-double-plus: easy-listening counterculture. But it’s the triumph of this documentary that we feel, after learning so much about a game-changed yet weirdly unchangeable street messiah, who we’re told still lives in his demi-hovel, that there is more to learn yet. The searchers for Sugar Man are still searching.
Fact, this week, kicks fiction into the far grass. If Sugar Man outdistances credence, what about the Michelin-starred restaurant on the Catalan coast that serves 35 courses to every guest, including calf cartilage, rabbit’s brain and water-and-hazelnut-oil cocktails? “Did serve,” we amend. El Bulli shut shutters in 2010 to become a cooking academy. It used to close for six annual months, as witnessed here, when chef Ferran Adrià and his main men retreated to a laboratory in Barcelona to brainstorm – tongue-storm? – the next season’s menu.
The first hour of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, a German-directed documentary whose deadpan gaze is just right, follows the white-garbed perfectionists from tool to tool or surface to surface – plate, saucepan, pressuriser, vaporiser, parsnip accelerator, nuclear fission reactor – as they seek the micro-conditions in which a mushroom, pistachio, demi-glaze or ice cube reaches its perfect transformation point. Insane? Very. But soberly, giftedly insane. Chef Ferran is a stern leader. “It’s simply bad. Don’t give me anything that isn’t good,” he says with an Armageddon look to a sous-chef submitting a helpless, trembling amuse-gueule.
Then we go to the picturesque cove-front restaurant to see how it works with a crowd, or two crowds, the guests and the army of sub-cooks, waiters, greeters. The dishes stream past our eyes and noses, exposing one of the film’s two deficiencies. We need scratch’n’taste cards for all this, don’t we? What price a rabbit-brain savoury if we can’t savour it? On second thoughts don’t even ask about prices: although – second deficiency – since the restaurant is now closed tariff-terror has become academic and historical.
Leave It on the Floor is a gay black musical made for what looks like an evening’s cloakroom tips at El Bulli. It is cheap, cheerful and so keen-to-please you want to adopt it as if it were an orphaned dog. It rolls out its tongue like a red carpet. Won’t we please walk up its daft plot about a hunky street youngster tangling with two queeny models while auditioning for a campy nightclub where … oh never mind. The songs are not too catchy, the jokes not too funny. But the pleading innocence is appealing. Is this any part at all of the same black American culture that gave us last week the bilious, brilliant, transgressive logorrhoea of Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap?
Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, in 3D, involves you in watching small, multicoloured creatures cavorting three inches from your nose. It is like delirium tremens, only less fun. Eighty-six minutes of eco-messaging digimation about a greedy tree-destroying entrepreneur and the orange-coloured forest guardian of the title (plus boy and girl caught in crossfire), its plasticky colours, flat-pack figures and Toytown topography say: “We are really 2D. But you can fool yourselves a little if you wear the glasses.”