Seek And Enjoy: Searching For Sugar Man Reviewed

Nadia Attia is enthralled by this investigative profile of cult musician Rodriguez. Main still by Hal Wilson, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lost: one musician by the name of Rodriguez. Found: one film that will move and inspire you.

This summer expect the lilting, husky tones of Sixto Rodriguez’s ‘Sugar Man’ to be dripping musical gold into your ear as it’s released on the soundtrack to feature documentary Searching For Sugar Man. Although superficially the kind of track that would sit comfortably at a music festival or summer barbecue, it’s typical of Rodriguez in that it’s actually a beautifully melancholy song of escapism, false friends and solace: "Sugar man, won’t ya hurry, coz I’m tired of these scenes/For a blue coin, won’t ya bring back, all those colours to my dreams…"

In Detroit in the late ’60s the same golden tones tickled the ears of two music producers, Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, who whisked the unassuming Rodriguez away to a studio, sure that they’d found the next Bob Dylan. They recorded two albums that bombed, and gave up on ever making him a star. Rodriguez literally disappeared, not that anyone would have noticed. Except that in South Africa they did notice: his 1970 debut Cold Fact became a part of pop culture, gave voice to rebellion against oppression, and yielded anthems for frustrated youth during the apartheid era.

A pair of proactive South African fans decided to join forces and investigate the gory rumours of Rodriguez’s supposed onstage death, in an attempt to learn more about the man behind the myth. Followed by a small film crew, headed by first-time Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, they unravelled their idol’s story. Searching For Sugar Man is a testament to the resonating power of music and, unlike many rambling and self-indulgent docs of this type, it carries you along at an even pace on tides of narrative, lyricism and emotion. It’s part detective story, part rags to riches fairy tale and part video fanzine.

Although the animated elements jar slightly, Bendjelloul’s interviews, access, and visuals piece together a collage of Rodriguez’s remarkable life. The result is an accomplished assemblage that clearly took a lot of time (five years) and passion to craft. That fact that it’s since sparked renewed interest in the career of its reclusive subject lends the picture even more of a powerful energy, one that radiates from the screen.

It is of course helped along by the music’s quality: the interviewees unanimously can’t understand why Rodriguez didn’t achieve commercial success in the US, and his evocative songs are peppered throughout. The lyrics themselves supply material for the filmmaker, and for the viewer they provide moments of introspection. Both as an artist and human being, Rodriguez is portrayed as a figurehead for the everyman and the everyday – a teacher and dreamer – and you can’t help but admire him.

The singer retains a mysterious, shadowy façade born not of ego, but humility. His 1960s record label was dismayed that when performing he would often turn his back to the audience, an unintended ritual of the authentic outsider. In many ways Searching For Sugar Man is the filmic extension of this – the small independent piece that had its own share of luck in the making. Produced by Simon Chinn, who previously helped bring Man On Wire (2008) and Project Nim (2011) to the big screen, it was initiated by unknowns and this week receives a well-earned nationwide cinema release. Hopefully this doc can enjoy longevity and take its deserved place in the spotlight. Take a bow, Sugar Man.

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