Review: “Searching for Sugar Man”

Rodriguez, the musician subject of "Searching for Sugar Man"“Searching for Sugar Man” is the rarest kind of documentary — one that chronicles events so unbelievable that the viewer is content to simply sit in awe of what is unfolding before them. The filmmaking isn’t particularly sophisticated and the material isn’t particularly challenging, but by sharing such a stranger-than-fiction story, first-time director Malik Bendjelloul has done moviegoers a service that transcends technical accomplishment. His great discovery reaffirms that life, however strange, can be truly wonderful — an idea that very few filmmakers are able to genuinely capture.

If you value my opinion enough that the above paragraph has already compelled you to see the movie, then stop reading now, for the story will undoubtedly pack an enjoyable element of surprise if you go in cold. But I assume that the bulk of you will need a little explanation of the “unbelievable” events in “Searching for Sugar Man” before you plunk down $10 to see it. That’s fine — and knowing the basic facts ahead of time won’t compromise one’s overall enjoyment of the film, for its true rewards rest not in shock-value, but in the material’s surreal testimonial to the human spirit.

“Searching for Sugar Man” introduces the audience to the legacy of the early ‘70s folk-rock musician Rodriguez, who, despite hailing from Detroit, is known by very few Americans. His two albums were critical successes but commercial disasters, causing him to be dropped from his label within a few years of initially singing, forgotten by the industry. However, over subsequent decades, Rodriguez’ music became iconic in South Africa, where his anti-establishment lyrics were a major source of inspiration for apartheid opposition groups. He sold 500,000 records in that country — a figure comparable to those achieved by major stars like The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel.

What makes the story so wild is that Rodriguez never knew of his following until the 1990s, because there was no Internet to spread the word and he was never paid the vast royalties he was owed. In South Africa, there was a widely spread rumor that he committed a gruesome onstage suicide, either by shooting himself or lighting himself on fire. That was until superfan Steve Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew decided to investigate what really happened to the musician in the early days of the Internet, eventually receiving an e-mail from Rodriguez’ daughter that he was alive and well. Shortly thereafter, a Capetown concert was booked.

Bendjelloul spends ample time talking to Segerman, Bartholomew, and the record executives who originally championed Rodriguez to build up to the revelation that Rodriguez was alive, but nothing beats the scenes that he spends with the musician himself later on in the movie. A soft-spoken, unassuming fellow who spent his post-music career working construction jobs, Rodriguez comes across as the consummate artist of his era, who made music for love, not fame. He was genuinely humbled and awestruck by the discovery of his success. That he so clearly deserved his late-in-life break makes the story all the more special for the audience.

As a first-time feature documentarian, Bendjelloul makes his share of mistakes with the film’s construction. For one, his attempt to trace the embezzler of Rodriguez’ South African royalties ruins the tempo. Secondly, even though Bendjelloul spotlights Rodriguez’ most significant songs, he still doesn’t focus on the music enough (the extended soundtrack is a must-listen). But most viewers won’t even recognize these shortcomings in light of the sheer wonderment of the experience. “Searching for Sugar Man” is as life-affirming as movies get and, with any luck, it will deservedly become the art-house crossover hit of the summer.