Title: Searching for Sugar Man
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Winner of jury and audience prizes at both the Sundance and Los Angeles Film Festivals, Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” is an unexpectedly fresh nonfiction tale that rustles up deep feelings of a life stolen. Part docu-mystery, part uplifting valentine about the universality and resonating power of music, the movie tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an enigmatic, Detroit-based singer-songwriter who in the early 1970s released two soulful but commercially irrelevant albums under his surname, and quickly disappeared into complete oblivion, only to find unlikely reception and fame in a completely different context, half a world away.
In 1968, two music producers went to a smoke-filled downtown Detroit bar to see an unknown recording artist who’d attracted a small following with his affecting melodies and mysterious penchant for playing with his back to the crowd. They were immediately bewitched with Rodriguez, a Mexican-American folk singer whose evocative lyrics seemed a beguiling mixture of wistful regret and dark prophecy. They recorded two albums, and despite superb reviews, 1970’s “Cold Fact” and its follow-up, “Coming From Reality,” were unmitigated commercial disasters, effectively marking the end of Rodriguez’s recording career. He disappeared, and all that followed were stories of escalating depression, and rumors of suicide.
But a bootleg recording of “Cold Fact” found its way into South Africa, where its socially plugged-in lyrics found welcome reception with a generation of Afrikaans struggling with the moral failings of their country’s apartheid. Over the next several decades, even though he was banned from government-controlled radio playlists, Rodriguez became a phenomenon (bigger than Elvis and the Beatles, we’re told). Two fans — an ex-jeweler and a music journalist — would eventually set out to try to get the bottom of his presumed death, with surprising results for all involved.
Music is at its core, which gives “Searching for Sugar Man” a passing familiarity to fellow docs like “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” and “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” the latter about a troubled singer-songwriter whose mental health struggles precluded any grander commercial breakthrough. The investigative/questing aspect of its narrative, however, is much more of a piece with Mark Moskowitz’s superb but grossly under-recognized 2002 film “Stone Reader,” which chronicled the filmmaker’s attempts to track down the seemingly vanished author of a striking 1972 debut novel, “The Stones of Summer.” Unlike that movie, however, which leans on the critical assessments of Moskowitz and other talking heads, viewers of “Sugar Man” are able to bask in the contemplative melancholy of Rodriguez’s soulful music — a unique and frequently heartrending melding of Bob Dylan’s poetic lyricism, Donovan’s lilting phrasing and delivery, and Marvin Gaye’s pained urban unrest. There are plenty of lazy and unworthy nonfiction lionizations bumping around out there, but this isn’t one of them.
What gives “Sugar Man” plenty of extra “oomph,” though, are its socio-political heft as well as the engaging mode of its telling. In regards to the latter, plenty of documentaries are presented in staid fashion, as little more than a collection of talking heads; Bendjelloul’s movie, on the other hand, has a much more thoughtfully constructed visual template. Working with cinematographer Camilla Skagerstrom, the director presents an inviting pastiche of sweeping Cape Town cityscapes, and contrasts them in compelling fashion with the burned-out rubble of Detroit, both past and present. This, in turn, reinforces the amazing and unlikely social connection, spanning thousands of miles, found between young, mostly white South Africans and Rodriguez’s stirring poetry of defiance.
As more details regarding his life and family come into focus, a heart aches and swells for Rodriguez. Still, “Sugar Man” doesn’t offer up much in the way of definitive insights about its subject. Rodriguez remains a rather enigmatic, almost shamanistic figure. Biographical details are handled in broad strokes, and certainly not much is learned about his creative inspiration and writing process, which, fused as it was to the heartache and economic despair of Motor City, had to have been interesting. As well, given the manner in which he raises it and the strong feelings in viewers it evokes, Bendjelloul would also be better served addressing more substantively the issues of artist royalties, and the money trail leading to Clarence Avant, the onetime impresario of the label which held Rodriguez’s overseas rights.
That said, “Sugar Man” is still a little gem — an engaging rumination on fame and inspiration, swollen with feeling. It shows the world to be a wide place, and a hearteningly small one as well.
Written by: Brent Simon