Review: Searching For Sugar Man

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

It’s that time of year again. The multiplexes are filled to bursting with awful, horrible children. Children that are chewing, yelling, texting, copulating and generally making the lives of grown up cinema goers an absolute fucking trauma. Who births these intolerable demons? Who allows them to behave like this? Because of them the chain cinemas and their vacuous big-budget Hollywood blue waffles are no-go areas. It’s time to retreat to the comfort of your smaller arty cinemas and watch the main alternative that (this) summer (especially) has to offer; documentaries.

There are plenty of them about this year, and a good thing too. They’ll tide us over nicely until the aforementioned monsters are once more jailed up in their schools. The documentary has had a wonderful rebirth over the past decade, and is rightfully recognised once again as legitimate feature business. Indeed, amongst the overwhelming number of tepid flights of fiction, it can quite strongly be argued that the documentary is filmmaking at its most vital and powerful. Chief amongst this year’s hopefuls for our attention is Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man.

So whilst the schools are out let’s have a little class of our own. Hands up then… who here had heard of the early 70s singer/songwriter Rodriguez before news of this documentary came along? Be truthful now. There. Not many hands. Maybe a few eager hands from browsers in South Africa, but the rest of the class? I thought not. I certainly hadn’t.

Bendjelloul’s film tells the curious true story of a Detroit man who cut two albums of songs, got halfway through a third, and then, according to legend, killed himself in the middle of a performance. His name? Sixtoo Rodriguez. But unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music had created a counter-culture wave in South Africa, where he was bigger than The Rolling Stones. In Searching For Sugar Man, Bendjelloul follows two South African men on their mission to uncover the truth about their elusive cult hero.

And so a sprightly, colourful documentary unfurls. Bendjelloul keeps the pace skipping along in the first half, as we’re brought up to speed on the mix of truth and rumour about Rodriguez, as well as the cultural significance his albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality had in South Africa, how his songs resonated more than Dylan’s, especially in the midst of Apartheid. The personal quest eked out by record store owner Stephen Segerman (an almost too-perfect name) and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom to understand the nature of a profound icon is delivered with infectious enthusiasm.

What they discover ought not to be spoiled here, but it presents a curveball that throws the film onto a different course altogether, one that distracts the narrative so much that some of the early questions – to do with rights and royalties – never fully get resolved. And whilst the second half of the film sees the story turn surprisingly inspirational and heart-warming, it also lacks a lot of the inquisitive intrigue of the beginning.

What Searching For Sugar Man does underline however is the flighty nature of exposure that can make or break a recording artist. How being heard in the right place and at the right time can change lives and move people, of the power of word of mouth and our communal shared experiences. Rodriguez’s songs dominate the film, unsurprisingly, and they all sound good. Lost classics beamed in from another dimension.

Ironically, this film could be the key to finally breaking Rodriguez in the Northern Hemisphere, or at least to bringing him a degree of notoriety. Expect to hear “Sugar Man” and other key recordings in your local Starbucks outlet for the next 24 months. Would homogenising the man’s work into society neuter the power of his songs? It’s hard to say. Hopefully not.

But I digress…*

Even by the credits, when so much more is known, I left the theatre wondering who Rodriguez was. I had found out a lot, but I still felt it was incomplete. Perhaps this is appropriate. The man’s myth thrives from elusiveness. Never centre spotlight. Always in the shadows, turned away from the audience. Searching For Sugar Man is a good, strong film. Definitely worth a look. But by preserving the mystery of the man, one wonders if Bendjelloul has shied away from really digging here, that there’s a more substantive documentary on an editing room floor. Or perhaps all we really needed to know, in the end, are the songs.

7 of 10

*at this point in the first draft of this review I realised that I had moved far from topic and written a whole paragraph of venom directed against bland M.O.R. warbler James Morrison (not to be confused with the actor seen in 24 and Space: Above & Beyond). So angry and hateful was this tirade, that it has been deleted altogether for fear that I would appear to be some jabbering internet troll. But rest assured, the man is awful.**

**still couldn’t help myself

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