Up the Swa­nee with a pad­dle

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

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.

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