Searching for Sugar Man Reviews
With so much praise being heaped on this film, I was expecting something a bit more probing and/or profound. Instead, I got a delightful little doc about a humble American folk singer who after years of drowning in myth and obscurity, discovered that his art has touched the lives of millions in other parts of the globe.
It doesn't villify the music industry or spend too much time looking to assign blame. Rather, it seeks to celebrate. Not only the artist Rodriguez, but the power of music. Sounds rather cliche, but Searching For Sugar Man somehow manages to make it feel fresh.
While not one of the more exciting films to be released this year, Sugar Man will surely leave a smile on your face.
A musician lighting himself on fire while on stage, committing suicide in the most horrific of ways. A fan's recollection is how Searching for Sugar Man starts.
What a story.
Sixto Diaz Rodriguez AKA Rodriguez writing and performing his poetic, grim observations of the working class and their unfair treatment in Detroit, circa mid-1970s. The hopes and dreams of being signed to a label, with Bob Dylan comparisons. A gig gone bad and the unpredictable music industry in the U.S. not paying an announce of attention. Dead in America, metaphorically, and literally, to those in South Africa, where he was kind of a big deal!
South Africa at the height of Apartheid is something I've never explored. I was astounded to hear the levels of control the government enforced, from controlling the news cycle to scratching out tracks containing unruly lyrics on I Wonder. Amidst all this, a copy of Rodriguez's album, Cold Fact, makes its way into South Africa. It's heard at a party. The anti-establishment lyrics instantly connect. Bootlegging ensues, word spreads, and Rodriguez is the voice of a movement. This isn't cult status we're talking, this is BIGGER THAN ELVIS. Bigger than The Rolling Stones. The impact and influence his music had is mind-boggling.
Rodriguez was none the wiser. Even with the bootlegging, Cold Fact went Gold ten times over. I won't get into the farce of loyalties and Sussex; needless to say, Rodriguez wasn't informed, and the people of South Africa are left wondering who this mysterious man is. There was nothing ever written about him in American publications, and the record sleeve had three names is all. No one knew where he was from, his real name, or how he died.
Two men wondered a little more than the rest. When the CD was finally released in the early 90s in South Africa, one wrote the intro to the inside sleeve, and asked why they know so little about Rodriguez. The other man saw said sleeve. They got in contact, exchanged notes, made a breakthrough about where Rodriguez was from, via his lyrics, and created a website to search for more information about the Sugar Man.
Getting in contact with Rodriguez's former producer leads to excitement and a million questions, not the least of which is, "How did Rodriguez die?". "What do you mean, die? He's very much alive".
I'd enjoyed the heck out of this documentary up to this point. It got infinitely better.
The revelation that Rodriguez was alive, going about his everyday construction job, never overly mournful about his "failed" music career was enough. He gets in contact with the two South African fans. They have the conversation of their life. Again, I was content.
It's still not over though, folks.
Sixto Diaz Rodriguez sells out 5 concerts in a triumphant tour of South Africa, 20 odd years after his music reached their shores. On stage, to a packed audience, and overwhelming adoration, he finds his home.
I'll say it again. What a story!
Documentary filmmakers are incredibly devoted to their craft. I bow down to you, Malik Bendjelloul. I have a newfound love for documentaries that became fully realised at SXSW this year. Searching for Sugar Man is up there with the best of what I've seen.
As much as I admire screenplays and fictional writing, there are millions of unbelievable, fascinating, real stories about this world that need to be told, and I love the Documentary for doing that.
I had no idea what to expect going into Searching for Sugar Man. All I'd heard was that it won the Audience Award at Sundance 2012. I'm glad I knew nothing else, and I came out of this learning a hell of a lot, beaming ear to ear.
Except...one of his records soon ends up in South Africa.(A possibility involves a visiting American.) And the music's anti-authoritarian lyrics fuel the Afrikaans anti-apartheid resistance and Rodriguez' music develops a huge following there. Some of his fans become curious about Rodriguez, with the only available information coming from his records. The story goes that he committed suicide on stage, dousing himself in gasoline and lighting himself on fire.
Except...no, that would be telling.
"Searching for Sugar Man" is a fascinating documentary that tells an incredible story while structured expertly to sustain the mystery. In the end, maybe fact is not that much stranger than fiction. The documentary is very well filmed with some very cool sporadic uses of animation.(In which case, does this or "Detropia" photograph the ruins of Detroit better?) But there is nothing new here that we have not heard before about the music industry that had no idea what to do with Rodriguez' music who I would classify as Bob Dylan with a decent singing voice. The important thing here is that success is in the eye of the beholder
Music is not the only subject of interest, as the documentary also provides keen insights into apartheid era South Africa, especially in the activism, cultural isolation and censorship of the time.(Whoever scratched the records is going to burn in hell where they will be bombarded with the music of boy bands for all eternity.) So, while we can see how much South Africa has changed for the better, the recent bloody miners' strike suggests maybe the new boss is not so different from the old one.
This picture not only sheds light on his music and life. But, it does something more important. It is really about how his music changed others lives. In ways that he was blissfully unaware of. A very beautiful and touching story. One that should not be missed.