SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
MPAA Rating: (for brief strong language and some drug references)
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 7/27/12 (limited); 8/10/12 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 10, 2012
Many, myself included, will be hearing about Rodriguez—the man and his music—for the first time with Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary that starts by taking on the form of a mournful mystery only to find hope in resurrecting the dead. He was "an inner city poet," says one of the producers of the musician's first album. Another interviewee says that the only person writing songs like Rodriguez' at the time was Bob Dylan.
He would inspire and entire generation in South Africa to speak out against apartheid at a time when the conservative government in power would scratch the tracks on records they deemed inappropriate for air. In one of those songs, Rodriguez dared to wonder how many times a woman about whom he's interested has had sex. His oeuvre served as the anthems for necessary rebellion.
The greatest strength of Searching for Sugar Man is that it serves as an introduction to this man's music. When people start proclaiming that, at least in South Africa, Rodriguez is more popular than the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley, it's expected that we'll be curious, especially considering how much of a niche his kind of folk-rock styling is. When that statement comparing the singer/songwriter's lyrical abilities to those of Dylan, one can't help but be a bit skeptical.
Director Malik Bendjelloul lays those claims on the table without any hesitation. Transitional scenes—giving us a mixture of archival footage (real and imagined), representational sketches, and, in a few instances, animation—play out with Rodriguez' songs blaring on the soundtrack. The titles of the songs appear at the top of the screen, apparently with the wholly accurate forethought that we will begin hunting these songs down as soon as we are able.
They are beautiful melodies from a man clearly haunted by more than he can fully relate. The lyrics flow with a relaxed poetry and straightforward anguish. The guitar strums something fierce beneath string accompaniment, and the smooth voice and rhythmic delivery of the lyrics soothe us on a journey full of misery and hardship.
We immediately want to know about this man, only to discover we are way behind the curve. Others have lived their entire lives not only seeking the answers to the enigma of Sixto Rodriguez but also trying to figure out what questions they should be asking in the first place. At one point, one of the two musicological detectives on the case decides to use the man's lyrics to search for clues.
Surely there is something there, he figures. Sure enough, there's plenty: He was born in a "troubled city" under "the shadow of the tallest building." Actually, the man decides, this isn't any help. It was the 1960s when he wrote the song, and a lot of cities were "troubled" at that time. Plus, the two investigators, Craig Bartholomew and Stephen "Sugar" Segerman (who takes his nickname from a Rodriguez song), are from South Africa, and they weren't completely sure which building to consider the tallest in the United States at the time Rodriguez references.
No one really wrote anything about this man until the two of them became interested. They could go to any music magazine or newspaper from the United States to learn just about anything they wanted to know about any other famous musician. Therein lies the problem: Rodriguez never gained anything approaching fame; he was barely a blip on the radar.
The film is structured as reminiscence, as the central events of Bartholomew and Segerman's hunt for Rodriguez are over a decade old. It gives Bendjelloul the freedom to go even further back than the duo's search, and he starts with a brief synopsis of the very little anyone knew about the man until Bartholomew and Segerman came along. The little amounts to nothing of any importance. A bartender recalls seeing Rodriguez walking down the street with the air of a homeless person. He would do odd jobs, mainly in construction for a living. One of the producers of his first album recalls seeing him for the first time on stage in 1968. Rodriguez had a peculiar habit: When he was on stage at this club or that, he would keep his back turned to the audience. The smoky, cryptic atmosphere made enough of an impression on the producer that he immediately wanted to help this man make a record; the songs helped a lot, too, obviously.
Rodriguez is a collection of legends—an idea in want of physical form. The most infamous of the stories told about him involves his final performance. It was a failure, and when he reached lyrics that served as an appropriate farewell, he pulled out a gun and shot himself. Maybe he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire, or else he somehow exploded himself on stage. Again, asking the right questions is as important as—or even more so than—the answers.
The interview subjects are well-chosen and seem as genuinely dumbfounded by Rodriguez' story as we are (this, even after they've had over ten years to let it settle). A music journalist helps put things in greater perspective, and Clarence Avant, who founded the record label that signed Rodriguez, is particularly insightful about in his no-nonsense rant about why it's stupid for anyone to "follow the money" when it comes to the music industry and why Rodriguez might have failed to gain a following in the United States (He supposes the name had something to do with it). Eventually, Rodriguez' daughters, who are suspicious of all the stories about their father's death for reasons that become embarrassingly obvious, arrive, and we get an even better picture of the man—endlessly humble and down-to-earth without any affectation.
At various points he was a politician, a philosophy student, a construction worker. He remains an inspiration to many at a level he never would have dreamed possible, and a scene of the ecstatic faces of several generations of people at a massive gathering in South Africa proves it. Searching for Sugar Man is a rousing and all-encompassing look at a man who becomes even more of a mystery after we've gotten to know him.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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