REVIEW: Searching For Sugar Man
By Adam Clery on July 31, 2012 in Film
Chances are you’ve never heard of Sixto Rodriguez. That’s fine though, he was an American folk musician from the 70s who produced two commercially disastrous LPs and allegedly offed himself at a gig some years later. An interesting tale, but without the seminal works of a Cobain, a Hendrix, or a Morrison to put his music into context, forgivable as an oversight by the music public.
However, sometime later, a few bootlegged copies of his album began to gain popularity with white liberal South Africans who badly needed something fitting to soundtrack their opposition to apartheid. Rodriguez became a huge word-of-mouth hit, sold half-a-million copies, and is stil today considered by some in the country to be a bigger musical success than Dylan, The Beatles, Elvis, or One Direction.
But, this being the seventies, the only information on the artist was whatever was contained in the liner notes of the LP. There was no Wikipedia article on his career, no way to Google his latest song, and not even so much as mailing list to find out about his next show. They simply had the songs, and the stories that sprung up around them. He became an icon of their pop culture, despite his audience knowing nothing about him beyond his name.
Despite sounding like the opening to a clever indie film, every word of that is fact, which is the greatest appeal of Malik Benjelloul’s stranger-than-fiction documentary Searching For Sugar Man. An ambitious and involving film which follows the artist’s story through the eyes of two South African music lovers as they attempt to track down what happened to their idol, as well as what happened to the vast royalties his success must have entitled him to.
As documentaries go, it’s best described as the complimentary school milk to the gelatinous sugary goop of This Is Spinal Tap. Many brilliant similarities, but Searching For Sugar Man has a far more wholesome, warming appeal that’ll stay with you long after the rush of excitement has worked its way out of your system. A considered, thoughtful, and overall fascinating tale of one man’s remarkable life and the extraordinary legacy his music crated thousands of miles away.
It’s stylistically lovely as well, director Malik Bendjelloul weaving the narrative as captivatingly as any piece of fiction, and having more than a hint of the Wes Andersons about him in the way he does it. Visually making the most of the urban decay of Detroit, as well as sereen grandeur of rural South Africa. There’s also some lovely animations thrown in here and there to bring to life the incidents that sadly happened away from any documentation.
In having the courage and guile to touch on the subjects of apartheid and the often corrupt finance structure of royalties in music, the film breaks through its veneer of simply being an interesting little tale and manages to make you think as often as it makes you smile. One particularly uncomfortable interview with the former head of Rodriguez’s record label inviting everyone to draw their own conclusions about why a single penny never made it from South Africa to the singer’s humble Detroit home.
Overall, this is film as much for fans of storytelling as it is for fans of 70′s protest music. It’s also got the sort of soundtrack (almost entirely taken from Rodriguez’s own back catalogue) that’ll have you clamouring for the iTunes store as soon as you get home. That in itself should tell you everything you need to know about the man and his music.