Friday, September 28, 2012

Upcoming Release Review: Searching For Sugar Man

Searching For Sugar Man, distributed through Madman, has a limited release October 4.

Searching for Sugar Man, which caused a stir at both the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals earlier in the year, is one of the most extraordinary and unforgettable documentary features of the year so far. Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul tells a magical, moving and transcendent tale and expertly offers up an exploration into the life and fate of a largely unknown folk music phenomenon while balancing a tremendous human story with a damn good mystery and some wonderful music.

In the late 1960s, two celebrated producers, who had worked with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, discovered a charismatic Mexican-American singer/songwriter named Rodriguez in a downtown Detroit bar. The producers were struck by Rodriguez's mysterious presence (no one knew where he lived and figured he was a homeless wanderer), his soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics. Bewitched by the man, they felt like they had discovered an artist capable of eclipsing the talents of Bob Dylan. Together they recorded an album in 1970, "Cold Fact", that they believed was going to secure his reputation as one of the greatest recording artists of his generation.

But inexplicably "Cold Fact" failed to sell in the United States despite critical praise and claims that Rodriguez was the next Dylan. Following the further failure of his second album, 1971's "Coming From Reality", Rodriguez fell off the radar and rumours began to spread about an on-stage suicide. Some claimed he set himself on fire. Others claimed he shot himself. 

But, whether Rodriguez killed himself or not, his legend lived on unbeknownst to him a continent away in South Africa. Supposedly a tourist brought with them a copy of "Cold Fact" and bootlegs began to get passed around. Later, the records were re-released and the sales rivalled those of some of the great musicians and groups (Dylan and The Rolling Stones) of the era.

Two South African fans, a jeweller who would later open his own record store, Steve 'Sugar' Segerman, and a music journalist, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, set out to find out what really happened to their hero. Their extensive investigation – which began by exploring the record jacket and interpreting Rodriguez’s lyrics - led them to a discovery more extraordinary than either of them could imagine.

The soundtrack for Searching For Sugar Man is entirely comprised of Rodriguez's music. A phenomenal lyricist, his songs are not only pleasant to listen to, but are also quite sad, profound and full of personality. The film is cinematic - an important trait for documentaries to have - with some stunning aerial captures of Detroit and various regions of South Africa, and even some recreated streets of Detroit via animation. 

Bendjelloul knows that to learn about Rodriguez he has to understand the context of when he was writing his music, the city he grew up in and the life that made him who he is. This film works as a human character study, but it is also an exploration of a city, and in extension a nation (South Africa) and these are brought to life in different ways courtesy of Rodriguez's powerful music. Brilliantly constructed, the story is full of twists and it is a disservice to any viewer unacquainted with Rodriguez to divulge any more than I have.

What is incredible is the impact that Rodriguez's songs had on the society embroiled in apartheid. His music was banned (records were scratched so that chosen songs couldn't be broadcast over the radio), but his lyrics, which discuss hardships in his hometown of Detroit, proved to be an inspiration and an influence on the white youth fighting back against apartheid.

As I began to learn more about Rodriguez and listened to emotional testimonies of fans of his music and people who were involved with him when he was younger - and the one with Clarence Avant, the former owner of the record company that put out Rodriguez's records, is one of many rousing interviews - my appreciation and admiration for Rodriguez began to grow. This is an extraordinary story and a moving and consistently fascinating film about hope and the resonating power of music.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)


  1. I loved this film so much! And I couldn't help feeling a little smug about it being Swedish. I wouldn't object it if snatched an Oscar for best documentary this year.

    1. For me, it is sitting only behind The Imposter (and Undefeated, but it won last year) but I would love to see it nominated. I think it certainly has a shot. I had no idea about the Swedish involvement, but its certainly a delightful life-affirming story.

  2. Great review! Just saw this at a Madman preview last night and had purposefully stayed away from reviews prior to seeing it. Very impressed by the scope in highlighting issues in both Detroit and apartheid era South Africa all in under 90 minutes. Definitely a contender for documentary of the year.

    1. Yeah, I think it is imperative not to reveal too much about the film. Best left to the viewer to discover themselves. It does cover a lot - the music industry, family and simple life too - in a short space of time, and I was left in tears. Great music.

  3. I saw it, too, this summer, in London, and I loved it.The music is wonderful and the way the story was told was touching and surprising, at points!One of the best documentaries of this year, for sure!

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