Dir. by Malik Bendjelloul - 1 hr. 26 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Searching for Sugar Man" is one of the most engrossing documentaries I've seen in quite a while. I generally enjoy watching documentaries about musicians, but in most cases, I'll see a movie about a musician because I already like that musician's music, and want to know more about him (or her, or whatever). "Sugar Man" is a different beast; it's a movie about a largely unknown musician, and has one hell of a mystery involved, as well.
Sixto Rodriguez released a pair of albums in the early 1970s, to little fanfare, which baffled a lot of the people involved. As one of the producers mentions, if you listen to those albums now, it seems impossible that they weren't huge. But they didn't sell at all here in the States, and Sixto was dropped from his label, which ended his recording career. That's not an uncommon story, there are legions of musicians who got the chance to record a couple of albums, nothing happened, and then they continued on with their lives. But there's a second part to Rodriguez's story; during the Apartheid-era in South Africa, his music became something of an essential soundtrack for a lot of people. Tapes made from a lone LP someone brought to South Africa spread, and then bootlegs spread, and South African labels then licensed the album and put it out legitimately. All told, it's estimated that between the forty million South Africans, half a million of them bought a Rodriguez record (which is considered 10x platinum there). But because all of this was happening in a country that was an international pariah, this was all happening in a vacuum. No information out, and just as importantly, no information in. Rodriguez was a mythical figure, rumored to have committed suicide mid-concert. Eventually, a couple of South Africans got curious, and wanted to know more about him, and how he had died.
Now, telling any more than that would constitute a massive spoiler. As I was watching "Sugar Man," I had to strongly resist the urge to grab my tablet and find out immediately what Rodriguez's fate was, I was that drawn into the story that I didn't even want to wait another five minutes to know. I don't even have to bust out the "Behind the Music" test this time; just the act of discovering Rodriguez's music is enough to make this film worthy. At the time, he was compared to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, largely in the sense that he was a singer-songwriter. From the music played in the movie, it's clear that he was in that ballpark, but with a distinct personality, and that his music held up pretty well. It was also clear, though interviews with both the South African "detectives" and musicians, that his music had a profound effect on many people's lives. Rodriguez, at least in South Africa, was a cultural touchstone in a time of extreme turbulence.
I'm not sure that I can talk anymore about what happens in the movie, but the last third was compelling, and fantastic. "Searching for Sugar Man" is one of the best music documentaries I've seen, and that's because it's a fantastic story, not because anyone (in the States) knows who he is. Most of the people who are interviewed are reverent about him, but the interview with Rodriguez's former label head stands in stark contrast, and very clearly outlines what it's like to be a creative figure in America. He states bluntly that nothing matters outside of America, and that even then, success is measured by one's bank account. You see the disconnect between art and commerce, and it's kind of up to the viewer to decide who is missing the point. It's funny that someone and his work can be so meaningful to some people, and seemingly not even worth discussion in another. I can't recommend "Searching for Sugar Man" enough, although you might end up having to get the soundtrack as soon as you're done watching it.
4 / 5 - TV (HD)