If Searching for Sugar Man was a fictional effort, it would go down in film history as one of the most shamelessly pandering films that doesn’t shy away from tugging at the audience’s heart strings in every conceivably condescending way, with a shameless twist ending that’s so hackneyed, it would make M. Night Shyamalan’s worst look like pure gold.
But since this story is real and told through a masterful documentary, it becomes one of the most intriguing, emotional and sometimes mind boggling films of recent years, as well as one of the best of 2012, documentary or otherwise.
The amount of seemingly random cause-and-effect in display in Searching for Sugar Man is bound to make you a true believer in fate or karma or pull you in the opposite direction and turn you into a proponent of chaos theory. Either way, this is a fascinating tale full of soul and inspiration, just like singer-songwriter Rodriguez’s music.
Rodriguez was a true hippie musician in the late 60s, living wherever he could lay his head inside the cold and rough streets of Detroit. He made his way through life playing his music at any venue that would have him. If I had to describe his sublime musical skills, I’d have to say it’s like a combination of Bob Dylan and Donovan, but more raw and sometimes more emotionally involving. In short, his stuff was really good.
A couple of record producers got hold of Rodriguez’s genius and made two records with him. These records did not sell at all in the USA and Rodriguez was dropped out of his contract, only to return to working random manual labor jobs in Detroit.
Meanwhile, at the other side of the world in South Africa, his music blows up and sells as many copies as Elvis and The Beatles. His tunes and lyrics become the primary source of inspiration for white young Afrikaners to stand hand-in-hand with black people against the apartheid.
Meanwhile, even though everyone has a copy of his albums in South Africa, people know next to nothing about Rodriguez himself. They know that he died in the early seventies. Wild legends grow out of the mystery, like a story that claims he burned himself alive on stage one night.
One of Rodriguez’s biggest fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, whose nickname even refers to one of Rodriguez’s songs, “Sugar Man”, decides to find out what really happened to Rodriguez in the 90s. He hooks up with a music journalist from USA and we find ourselves in a music-based detective story where these passionate fans try to find clues from Rodriguez’s lyrics. They finally end up getting in touch with his producer and then…
I shouldn’t spoil this for you, but suffice to say this film has a lot more surprises up its sleeve. Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s film packs a story that spans many countries and many decades into an hour and twenty-six minutes full of soul, passion, twists, turns and some excellent music, courtesy of Rodriguez.
Searching for Sugar Man is available now on home video and iTunes. Do yourself a favor and rent it. After you’re done, you’d probably be glad to find out that Rodriguez’s albums are also available on iTunes.