Up the Swanee with a paddle
JUST WHAT is the relevant collective noun for a swan pedalo of English eccentrics? We’re uncertain of the terminology but we do love Andrew Kötting’s barmy mock epic documentary, in which the director and the agreeably singular historian Iain Sinclair power a cygnine carnival float from Hastings to the site of the London 2012 Olympics.
Their demented odyssey takes them across sea, river and canal for four weeks and 250km of furious foot-operated action. Kötting sports a three-piece suit throughout, an ensemble that defines “overdressed” when he’s wading and splashing about.
Supposedly, our heroes are on a mission to lampoon the pomposity of the upcoming Olympics. To this end they mutter and pontificate among themselves, exchanging quotes from TS Eliot, Joseph Conrad and Edward Lear.
They’re joined, periodically, by like-minded guest pedalers, including conceptual artist Marcia Farquhar, comedian Stewart Lee and – won’t somebody make this into a chat show? – reclusive comic book auteur Alan Moore.
Early on there’s a suggestion that together they might pedal the swan pedalo until it becomes a real swan. They’re not far wrong. The plastic bird does seem to assert itself as a strange mute companion. Its form cries out for a pagan ritual or Wicker Man misadventure. There are echoes, too, of Three Men in a Boat, Heart of Darkness and Don Quixote.
Sure enough, the pedallers acknowledge that they’re merely tilting at sporting venues in lieu o f windmills: “He doesn’t think anything should happen in Hackney without his permission,” snorts Moore of Sinclair. An audio clip of Werner Herzog on the making of Fitzcarraldo trumpets the frivolity of the voyage. But the absurdity doesn’t make this funny, quirky travelogue any less worthwhile; the absurdity keeps us guessing.
Where do they go at night? How does Kötting’s suit stay clean? What do you mean Sinclair is leaving to catch a plane? These and other questions go unanswered in this defiantly ramshackle, proudly inconsequential oddity. IMAGINE THE story of Nick Drake – that mournful English singer who died in underserved obscurity – with a happy ending and you will have some idea what to expect from this terrific, staggeringly unlikely documentary.
In the early 1970s, a clever American singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez recorded two highly tuneful, beautifully arranged albums for an indie label. As far as the artist and his management were concerned, the records made no impact whatsoever. Rodriguez abandoned dreams of stardom and went back to working on construction sites.
Meanwhile, 8,000 miles away, liberal white rock enthusiasts in South Africa were gobbling up the LPs. As one of the contributors to Searching for Sugar Man explains, flip through the average South African music fan’s collection in the 1970s and Cold Fact, Sixto’s first record, would appear as often as Abbey Road or Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Isolated from mainstream media during apartheid, Rodriguez’ fans traded myths about their idol’s supposed demise. Had he shot himself on stage? Did he die of an overdose? The film somewhat cheekily purports to tell its viewers a detective story. In fact, the middle-aged South African who uncovered the truth did so simply by phoning Rodriguez’ producer. The singer was, it transpired, living simply in his hometown of Detroit. Successful tours of South Africa followed.
Featuring animation and powerful footage of a crumbling Motor City, Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, a young Swede, exhibits an agreeably light touch throughout. A shy man, Rodriguez does not prove to be the world’s most exhilarating interview, but it is impossible to remain unmoved by the insouciance with which he dismisses failure and greets subsequent rediscovery.
None of this would matter if the music didn’t stand up. Happily, Sixto Rodriguez’ early songs turn out to be terrific: a little like the work of a less anesthetised James Taylor.