out of Five
Running time: 86
Hugely entertaining and powerfully emotional, this is a terrific, well made documentary that tells a gripping story and unearths an astonishing musical find; it's also one of the best films of the year.
What's it all about?
Directed by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, Searching For Sugar Man first introduces us to Cape Town record shop owner and music fan Stephen Segerman, who explains that he was nicknamed “Sugar Man” because of his obsession with early 1970s American singer-songwriter Rodriguez. When Segerman meets similarly obsessed music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, the pair team up and decide to try and find out what happened to Rodriguez, despite prevailing and conflicting rumours of his death (one such rumour has him committing suicide on stage).
Incredibly, the pair discover Rodriguez living in a run-down Detroit neighbourhood, having raised a family, making a living through construction work (one of many parallels with the equally brilliant Anvil: The Story of Anvil). The film then takes a further turn as Rodriguez discovers the extent of his cult following in South Africa, where he had been an important voice amongst anti-Apartheid whites, and is persuaded to embark on a series of comeback concerts.
Bendjelloul frames the story as a mystery, allowing Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom to tell their story in their own words accompanied by reconstructions and the occasional animated insert; it also withholds the crucial reveal (subsequently rather spoiled by the promotional press tour and accompanying gigs) until about halfway through the film. However, this works even if you know the outcome, because it allows you to experience their joyful discovery through their eyes: for Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom, it's like finding Elvis alive and well and ready to perform again.
Along the way, Bendjelloul takes some intriguing diversions, exploring the extent of Rodriguez's political impact in South Africa and also attempting, fruitlessly, to discover exactly what happened to all the money Rodriguez should have made from his South African sales (there's a great interview with a record exec who gets very cagey about the subject).
What makes the film so affecting is that, like Anvil, it taps into powerful musical myths, such as the idea that an artist could have huge success in one country (Japan, South Africa) without even being aware of it, or that after years of obscurity, they could finally achieve the recognition they deserve. To that end, the film presents Rodriguez as an astonishing musical find (it's likely most viewers won't have heard of him), up there with the likes of Bob Dylan and Nick Drake. His lyrics and musical style closely resemble Dylan's, but there's an authentic voice and style that is uniquely Rodriguez.
Searching for Sugar Man is a well made, hugely entertaining and genuinely uplifting documentary that will have you immediately rushing to buy Rodriguez's available albums (or at least looking him up on YouTube). Highly recommended and one of the best films of the year.