Never heard of obscure 70s musician Rodriguez? Don’t worry – because according to the brilliant documentary Searching for Sugar Man, his two albums were consumed by approximately 10 people in America.
However, this near-mythological figure became a hero during the height of Apartheid in South Africa, and one of the great pleasures of this terrific film is seeing how one man came to achieve such cult status.
Right from the start, director Malik Bendjelloul demonstrates an invigorating sense of cinematic scale, spanning the globe from Cape Town to Detroit and expertly depicting the power music has in connecting disparate people.
The very first shot would appear to be incongruous: a record-store owner named Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, cruising down the South African coast to the sound of Rodriguez on his radio. Segerman is, in fact, one of the key players in this riveting tale; the other is music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom. Both men are on a mission to discover what became of their music idol, reputed to have either shot himself or set himself on fire.
Bendjelloul’s film then traverses the globe to Detroit, home of Motown – and Rodriguez himself. Beautifully lensed in ethereal clouds of vapour and neon light by Camilla SkagerstrÃ¶m, the film constructs its central subject as a mythical enigma. Immediately, we are hooked – few things are more intriguing than an enigma, and few things more alluring than the mystery of what became of them.
It turns out that Rodriguez – tantalizingly described as appearing with his back to a record producer inside a smoky bar – attained very little success in his home country. However, his career achieved a second wind thousands of miles away, when one of his records was brought to South Africa by a tourist. The music spread like wildfire among those censured by the Conservative Apartheid government, adopted by thousands during marches, and striking a rebellious chord in a climate where many aspects of culture were sanctioned.
Personal, political, emotional – Searching for Sugar Man is a wonderfully multi-faceted documentary. On the one level it’s a mystery story: a quest wherein two men attempt to track down their idol. It’s also a compelling document of how music can be adopted for political means. But, more poignantly, it’s the story of a man who finally experienced success in the twilight period of his career.
Yes, it turns out Rodriguez hadn’t committed suicide but had in fact returned to manual labour in Detroit following the failure of his music career. When Segerman receives an early morning phone-call from the man he has been seeking for so long, it’s one of 2012’s most spine-tingling, grin-inducing moments, as pure a depiction of fan enthusiasm as has ever been captured. What happened next was truly marvellous, vindication for both the men who had put so much energy into the search, and the musician who was the focus of their efforts.
One needn’t have an appreciation for the music itself. Although the songs are frequently deployed – lilting, eloquent, Dylan-esque – the movie’s sights are firmly located on the man behind the voice. In all honesty, we don’t learn a tremendous amount about Rodriguez when the camera finally sets its sights on him – but the film is to be commended for the way it avoids a trite, psychological evaluation.
What resonates is the sense that this is a remarkably talented but very ordinary man, little appreciated by his countrymen at the time, but who was adopted by fans on the other side of the world. Searching for Sugar Man is a wonderfully poignant and heart-warming tale, setting its sights on several targets and coalescing its findings into one gripping whole.
The film tells a really engrossing story, and is not merely a dry collection of talking heads. Bendjelloul paints his story on a canvas that is alternately epic and intimate, a story that seems impossible but draws its energy from the fact this all actually happened. It would be a shame were people required to put in the same amount of effort just to see the film – Searching for Sugar Man deserves to be seen by everyone, music fans or otherwise.