Film Review – Searching for Sugar Man
In 1971 a musician by the name of Rodriguez released a debut album entitled Cold Fact. At the time of its recording, Rodriguez was considered by many of his peers to be the next big thing. His producers (including Mike Theodore, who is notable for a lot of funk and disco music that came out in the ’70s) figured Rodriguez would be just as big, if not bigger, than Bob Dylan. When Cold Fact hit record shelves, though, that’s where it stayed, a financial flop. Rodriguez released a second album, Coming from Reality, a year later, to the same result. When his record label, Sussex, dropped him, Rodriguez basically disappeared.
Cue South Africa—a country oppressed under apartheid and looking for something to help stoke the fires of revolution. In comes a copy of Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact. The album, which is not available in any stores in South Africa, is copied and distributed and winds up spreading like wildfire throughout the country, creating a sensation an ocean away from where the album began. As a whole country of fans is born, Rodriguez meanwhile has disappeared, and in grand fashion. A rumor of a sensationalistic death on stage surrounds his disappearance.
There is something to be said about the power of art in a story like this. A person follows their ambition through to a less-than-satisfying conclusion, and goes back to the life they’ve always lived. Only through a weird set of circumstances does the art that person has created live on. Director Malik Bendjelloul handles his subject matter well. In Searching for Sugar Man, he creates a story of mystery, while simultaneously praising the power the mystery has left in its wake. The crosscutting between American musicians and producers who swear this man Rodriguez is one of the best lyricists they’ve ever heard, and a handful of notable South Africans who tell the story of how this man unknowingly influenced a nation and helped inspire a musical revolution helps create a documentary that is about as intriguing as gets.
The movie begins with the incredible story of Rodriguez’s supposedly spectacular demise by setting himself on fire, on stage, after his final performance in the ’70s. As the people from South Africa tell us, information on Rodriguez was not available like it was for Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones: while there are books on Dylan and the Stones, Rodriguez had merely liner notes that people could go on for information, so that’s exactly what they did. A nation of people created a whole mythology surrounding the musician based purely on the lyrics of his songs—lyrics that talk of economic strife, lost love, and a working-class mentality.
The documentary also brings to light exactly what kind of money-skimming, backdoor shenanigans take place in the record industry. Rodriguez’s two albums sold over a half-million copies in South Africa, and Rodriguez never received a dime for them. Royalties had to be paid by the record stores, but where the money ended up remains a mystery, until Sussex’s owner is brought to light. Clarence Avant, the onetime owner and operator of Motown Records as well as Sussex, seems to think the question of what happened to the money that was sent to him is not what’s important, but that Rodriguez being celebrated is. This clearly is meant to distract from any real answers concerning royalties due to Rodriguez for such a high volume of record sales.
Where the story goes and what has actually happened to Rodriguez since his disappearance is one of the best joys the film has to offer. While it is hard to hide a mystery surrounding a person’s rumored death when they are touring and appearing on late-night talk shows such as Letterman, the fact the story exists is enough in itself to create something compelling inside the documentary.
Bendjelloul handles the subject matter, the music at the center of the story, and the environments where the two locations of the story take place seamlessly. The editing enables these three elements to coexist as one, which is the greatest feat any documentarian can hope for. It helps that the nature of the story lends itself to something interesting and special to begin with, but in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, it would’ve been misused and ultimately saturated by the heavy-handed aspects of success and failure that often permeate stories like this. There is nothing to not like here. A story which is truly as poetic and inspirational as Searching for Sugar Man, will hopefully be remembered come awards season next spring.
Final Grade: A+
Also, be sure to check out our interview with Rodriguez & Mikal Bendjelloul.