Searching for Sugar Man (Sony Pictures Classics)
Written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Starring Rodriguez, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, Dennis Coffey, Willem Möller, Steve Rowland, Mike Theodore
I didn’t get a chance to see Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man while at Sundance although I’d heard nothing but good things about it and was especially intrigued when it won that festival’s Audience Award. I finally had my chance when it played at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it took second place for that festival’s Audience Award, and having seen it twice, it’s already one of my favorite movies of the year.
Having a music background and considering myself almost a student of rock music, I was shocked there was an artist out there I had never heard of. On the other hand, apparently everyone in South Africa has heard of the Detroit migrant worker who recorded the album “Cold Fact” with a couple Motown producers in the late ’60s, released a follow-up a few years later and then settled back into obscurity. By the time the records showed up in South Africa, even less was known about him, but the legend got around that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage sometime after that second record. Over the years that followed, his music became a major influence on the white Afrikanische musicians protesting Apartheid, selling hundreds of thousands of records in South Africa as the mystery surrounding him grew.
Decades later, a South African record store owner and a music writer do the detective work to learn the truth about Rodriguez, even creating a website in hopes of finding answers. If you don’t already know the story and you’re intrigued by the mystery surrounding this singer/songwriter, then this may be a good time to stop reading if you want to experience the film’s big reveal for yourself.
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Essentially, they discover Rodriguez is alive and living in Detroit, doing hard labor for very little money, and they convince him to come to South Africa to play a series of concerts for the thousands of fans that have turned him into a superstar thirty years after recording “Cold Fact.” He ends up flying there with his family to play sold-out concerts for thousands of his avid fans who can’t believe this mythic figure is still alive.
Rodriguez’s story is as unbelievable as any fairy tale and Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul tells his story in a way that builds on the mystery surrounding him, interviewing his producers and record execs who worked with him decades earlier. While certain parallels can be drawn between “Sugar Man” and Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a doc about a struggling metal band, I’d prefer to contrast it with Joe Berlinger’s recent Under African Skies, which involved a far more famous folk singer who found huge fame while Rodriguez settled into obscurity, who travelled to South Africa to record with black South African musicians.
In terms of the storytelling, Bendjelloul’s film is on par with the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, pulling you in with every beat, but what really makes the film something special is scoring it using Rodriguez’s songs. Presuming many people seeing this movie will never have heard his music before, it’s quite a way to experience it for the first time, his vivid lyrical storytelling painting a picture of the country in the late 60s. Few people will walk out of this movie not wanting to pick up one or both of Rodriguez’s records to explore further.
Bendjelloul has the benefit of two fantastic locations in which the story takes place and the stunning camerawork captures the divergent landscapes of Detroit and Capetown, while using animation to recreate certain scenes from Rodriguez’s story, cut together with actual footage of Rodriguez’s first Capetown concert.
Rodriguez himself is a fascinating character because he chooses to continue doing hard menial labor in Detroit rather than pursuing the newfound status he finds himself in, and the interviews with him show him to be a very down-to-earth humble individual despite his words and music clearly being hugely inspirational.
There are few movies, docs or otherwise, as perfectly crafted in the execution of telling such an incredible story as that of Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man, a gloriously inspirational comeback tale that leaves you feeling anything is possible.
Searching for Sugar Man opens in New York, Los Angeles and other cities on Friday, July 27. The soundtrack to Searching for Sugar Man, featuring a selection of songs from Rodriguez’s first two records, will be released by Light in the Attic Records/Legacy Recordings on Tuesday, July 24.
You can read our interview with Rodriguez and filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul here.