Searching for Sugar Man yields a mystery laced biography
Searching for Sugar Man is the debut feature film from Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul, and an impressive one at that. Choosing to dedicate a film to an incredibly obscure singer-songwriter from the 1970s may appear to be a risky proposition, but while many musicians quickly flop and fade into obscurity, no one has ever found such unexpected fame as the subject of Searching for Sugar Man. Not only has the Bendjelloul identified a fascinating human interest story in recording artist Sixto Rodriguez, but his presentation of this unlikely yarn is remarkably assured for a feature length first-timer.
Bendjelloul’s film opens in Cape Town, South Africa where Rodriguez mysteriously became a superstar, despite finding no success in his home country. The singer-songwriter draws comparisons from rock aficionados to Dylan, whilst claims that he is bigger than Elvis go uncontested. Tracks from his debut album, 1970’s Cold Fact are given considerable air time as interviews from his former colleagues, locals from his native Detroit and South African admirers attest to his underrated talent and mystique. Early into the film, come the stories of Rodriguez’s supposed suicide; the “facts” of which have since transformed into various urban legends. With the aid of vintage footage, Bendjelloul then takes viewers back to South Africa at the height of apartheid. Emphasising the isolation of the country, Rodriguez’s impact and influence is paid tribute. Afrikaans musicians herald his anti-establishment message, which resonated despite the South African government’s efforts to censor his album. Though being held up as a musical icon there for decades, Rodriguez’s popularity in South Africa is seen to be matched only by the complete lack of information known about him. With no one aware of who he actually was or where he was from, the only evidence of his existence was the music that became the soundtrack of a new South African era. Much of Searching for Sugar Man highlights the investigation by a South African music journalist into the background and whereabouts of Rodriguez and the discoveries that were more than anyone had bargained for.
Searching for Sugar Man is a celebration of both the power of music and the resiliency of the most common of men. The film is also an indictment of the fickle nature of the music industry and Searching for Sugar Man underscores the subjectivity of what constitutes successful art. While Rodriguez’s journey is a remarkable story, it’s strange to realise how ordinary the man at the centre of it actually is. Bendjelloul artfully pieces together a compelling biography dressed up in an investigatory narrative. Utilising stylish imagery, including animated sequences that segue into establishing shots and striking tracking shots, Searching for Sugar Man is as impressive in composition as it is in subject matter.
Though the final act contains some moving moments, it’s tough to shake the feeling that the myths and the mystery behind his success and subsequent disappearance from the music scene prove to be vastly more interesting than the reality of the situation. Of course, that’s one of the pitfalls that come along with documentary film-making. Still, it would have been nice to spend more time getting to know Rodriguez beyond the music. Interviews with his daughters are interesting, but not particularly useful in exploring what really followed once Rodriguez was dropped from his record label. For all the stories about his death, there’s no insight provided into how they came to be or how the family felt about them. That Rodriguez overcame the loss of a finger (vitally important for a guitarist) to continue to perform is never mentioned. These are minor issues, but their omission leaves the final 30 minutes feeling somewhat light compared to the gripping first hour.
Nonetheless, Searching for Sugar Man takes a well-earned place amongst the year’s finest documentaries. Even if the tale surrounding the man at the heart of the story proves to be more interesting than the subject himself, it’s a captivating tale of unexpected success and the profound impact music can have on anyone at any given time, no matter how unlikely it may seem. The tunes aren’t half bad either. 8/10