On Wednesday 4 July, Americans, Brits and a whole load of South Africans gathered in the grand Troxy building in Limehouse, London for a top secret Future Cinema screening. Advised to bring a mixed tape or record to swap with a stranger and dress in 1970s folk wear/late 80s arena wear/late 90s Johannesburg beachwear, participants turned up in their hundreds to witness an event that they had absolutely no prior knowledge of.
The dressing of the building may initially have seemed a little underwhelming after the glorious 40s-themed Brief Encounter (1945) and sci-fi warehouse spectacular of Prometheus (2012). Stalls selling records had been set up at the back of the room, along with banners for the Mabu Vinyl record store and a pile of old television sets; all meaningless without the grounding of the feature.
Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man (2012) was the perfect candidate for a secret screening, a unique documentary which tells the seemingly unexceptional tale of American psych-folk singer Sixto Rodriguez, who never hit the big time – or did he? Virtually impossible to discuss without spoilers, the film is an investigative journalists dream. Full of incredible twists and turns, Searching for Sugar Man establishes a reality and then proceeds to shatter it in an instant. It’s also brilliantly paced, as Bendjelloul knows exactly how to build anticipation before unleashing an astonishing truth or two.
One such atmospheric moment takes real time to describe one of Rodriguez’s dramatic performance entrances, as an arena full of fans eagerly await his arrival. The room is plunged into darkness and filled with the distinctive introductory bass notes of one of his most famous songs, I Wonder. A voiceover narration informs us that the fans are sceptical. Will he appear? Will it be the real Rodriguez? Is the gig merely an elaborate hoax? Then, a mysterious figure appears from the darkness and all hell breaks loose.
Searching for Sugar Man was a big success at The Troxy and the audience were utterly captivated by Rodriguez’s unbelievable story. Once the film had finished, the room broke out into rapturous applause, but the house lights never came up. Cue a few distinctive introductory bass notes and a mysterious figure on stage – then the crowd went wild.
On the way out of the building, everything suddenly made perfect sense; the Mabu Vinyl banners, the TV sets and the South African flags. The key to Future Cinema events isn’t just their special guests or exciting previews, it’s in the spirit and execution – it’s all about the bass notes.