Searching for Sugar Man (2012) Review
A fascinating, bizarre tale of a rock star that found an audience half a world away.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
The truth is stranger than fiction. We’ve heard it all before, but there’s no person it applies to better than Sixto Rodriguez. Rodriguez himself is one of modern music’s most incredulous disappearing acts, an extraordinary story of both fame and obscurity. Rodriguez is ever at the mercy of his own mystique; and Searching For Sugar Man is a compelling documentary chronicling the journey to solve one of rock music’s greatest enigmas. With both a gripping subject matter and a fantastic soundtrack, the film is sure to please everyone who wants to learn more about a great musician who almost never was.
In the late 60’s, word of a brilliantly talented local musician playing to eager crowds in Detroit dive bars reached the ears of two successful record producers. Almost immediately, they recognized the immense potential of this thoughtful and passionate musician going by only his last name, Rodriguez. Eager to find what they thought might be the next Bob Dylan, Rodriguez was quickly signed to a record deal and his first album was produced, Cold Fact. Despite positive reviews and continued support from those around him, Cold Fact never sold enough to make waves and Rodriguez faded into obscurity...in America anyway. On the other side of the globe in South Africa, Rodriguez’s passionate songs defending the poor and lambasting the establishment had found an enormous audience. Through word of mouth, and outlandish rumors about the artist committing suicide on stage, Rodriguez had become a folk hero. Years later, a small group of dedicated fans and one eager filmmaker set out to find the truth about Rodriguez, and what follows is a tale that will be hard to believe even after seeing it with your own eyes.
Searching for Sugar Man quickly manages to wrap its audience up in the strange journey to find Rodriguez. The director, Malik Bendjelloul, uses both his passion for the subject matter and the music of Rodriguez to establish a dominant presence persisting through the entire adventure. Bendjelloul manages to gather an amazing group of people whom Rodriguez has been a part of their lives in various degrees. Ranging from a dedicated record storeowner in South Africa to Rodriguez’s own three daughters, Bendjelloul keeps the hunt for Rodriguez exciting and intimate. Needless to say, and without spoiling too much, when Rodriguez himself shows up, the film hits an emotional high note that is seldom attained. The realization of finding out through some of his biggest fans that Rodriguez is still alive – along with his family’s realization of his foreign popularity – is an incredible and resonant experience.
It’s not just the great interviews that make the film so successful either; the production quality is commendable as well. Bendjelloul has gone all over the world in the search for Rodriguez, and uses all of his available settings to great effect. From the sweeping shots of South African countryside, the vibrant streets of Cape Town, to the gritty and downtrodden neighborhoods of old Detroit. He sets a tone that really displays the transcendent appeal of Rodriguez’s music.
The film’s soundtrack features nearly all of Rodriguez’s Cold Fact. Featured so prominently, in fact, that the track names are even displayed when each new song plays. It’s to everyone’s benefit though, because if there was even any doubt at this point, Rodriguez’s music is truly astounding. It’s thoughtful, deliberate and addicting. It’s easy to see why his appeal was so great in South Africa, and the only real mystery is why he never caught on anywhere else. The film features some wonderful performance footage of Rodriguez as well, including some truly jaw-dropping concert scenes.
Searching for Sugar Man is an excellent portrayal of the attempt to learn all about one of most enigmatic artists who ever picked up a guitar. However, beneath all the mystique and romance, Sixto Rodriguez is generous, contented, and a kind human being who everyone should know more about. Earnest and endearing stories coupled with Rodriguez’s own hypnotic music makes it a gripping adventure from beginning to end. Sometimes an old cliché is best, and it is as they say: you just can’t make this stuff up.