Searching for Sugar Man


Searching for Sugar Man definitely contains elements of mystery, and it represents the concert documentary well, but more than anything, this incredible film shows the power of the human interest story. It’s such a broad term—”human interest”—but there’s no better way to describe the life and career of Sixto Rodriguez—a manual laborer in Detroit, Michigan, who doubles as a true God of rock in Cape Town, South Africa.

Rodriguez started his folk music career in Detroit dive bars back in the 1960s. He was discovered by some producers. He made a brilliant album, then another. About six sales were made between the two of them, and according to legend, he killed himself onstage. Some claim he set himself on fire. Others insist it was a self-inflicted gunshot that did the deed. Regardless, few in America knew one of South Africa’s biggest stars “died” then.

His popularity in South Africa is perhaps one of the first instances of something going viral. “Cold Fact”—Rodriguez’s first album—was brought to the country by an American without commercial intentions, but with apartheid and strict media control still the norm, Rodriguez’s words spoke to angry South African men and women of all races. Because the culture and country as a whole were so insular, Rodriguez’s popularity spread quickly—so quickly, in fact, that the government sought to destroy his records.

The film follows two men—a record-store owner and a music journalist—who simply want to learn the truth about Rodriguez’s death. Their quest leads them to some unexpected, but incredibly joyful places, as they ultimately learn Rodriguez is alive and kicking in his hometown of Detroit. That, in and of itself, would be an amazing story, says the journalist. What happens next is too surreal to spoil here.

It’s a brilliant showcase both for some killer music and a moving quest—journalism that isn’t exactly hard-nosed but nonetheless leads to a glorious conclusion. Rodriguez’s music means so much to the South African citizens depicted here, yet he has no idea. It’s as if he has a second life halfway around the world that’s completely different from the one he lives in Michigan. Stories like this just don’t come along often. I’m so happy Searching for Sugar Man exists, though one can’t help but wonder how different Rodriguez and his family’s lives would be different if they’d known how big he is in South Africa.

It’s Malik Bendjelloul, a first-time Swedish filmmaker, at the helm here, and one of the film’s most admirable traits is its structure. The “mystery” element really sneaks up on you, and once it does, you’ll be totally hooked. But it resolves itself surprisingly quickly, and the film transforms into something totally unexpected. Bendjelloul allows his story to breathe, which is appreciated. He allows Rodriguez’s music to speak for itself—also appreciated. It’s simply a stunning film with a lot of weight behind it. It’s definitely the documentary of 2012, and it slides comfortably into my top five films of the year.

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