Searching for Sugar Man is a rare example of a music documentary about a virtually unknown artist. A refreshing example of how history can be retold through the most unimaginable personal story.
When the main point of the biographic film is not to illuminate the life of a well-known or controversial individual, it sometimes serves the purpose of rediscovering a unique human being and telling an exceptional story. This is the case in Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s portrayal of the folk-singer and poet Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. To most people, the 70-year old Mexican-American singersongwriter is totally unknown, but for a few dedicated devotees of 60s and 70s psychedelic music, Rodriguez is a cherished artist. His two albums with the documentarysounding titles Cold Fact and Coming from Reality enjoy the status of neglected classics. As we learn through Malik’s film, he is also cherished by a whole generation of South Africans, since Rodriguez’s songs were considered revolutionary music during the Apartheid era and unknowingly, he was idolized as a Jimi Hendrixlike figure among musicians and fans in this troubled nation. The details of this unbelievable story make way for an even more rewarding film scenario. Not only did Rodriguez write the soundtrack to a revolution, he is also one of those enigmatic characters who give music history its captivating and mythical qualities. Among the tales we are introduced to the musician’s early years, which were spent on the desolate streets of Detroit.
An interview with collaborator Dennis Coffey describes Rodriguez as a mystical and insightful poet who seemed to materialize out of a smoke-filled barroom, part of the Motor City music scene of the late 60s. We learn that the people who worked closely with him on his recordings consider him one of the most talented songwriters ever. This is touchingly conveyed in an intimate little scene, where the charismatic producer Steve Rowland tells how Rodriguez was dropped from his record company in December ’71. He plays the artist’s song Cause on his stereo while he recounts the sad end of Rodriguez’s career:
«Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas And I talked to Jesus at the sewer And the Pope said it was none of his God-damned business While the rain drank champagne»
This filmic setup effectively illustrates the “freak coincidence” nature of the music industry. Lyrically and musically Rodriguez is emblematic of the period, and Malik’s recurring focus on the sound and consistency of his songs makes it quite unbelievable to the viewer that this artist did not enjoy a major breakthrough in his time. The build-up of mythology and the inevitable comparison with contemporary superstars actually ends up reminding one of Rob Reiner’s notorious music mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (USA 1984) – that is just how farout this story eventually seems.
With a unique story like the one told in Searching for Sugar Man, a fundamental question presents itself: is Bendjelloul an inventive director? The answer is yes and no. He understands how to keep the focus on what counts: telling the iconic tale of a lost star, who by a twist of fate suddenly gets the chance to shine again. And shine is what Rodriguez does, with a dignified quality that is unmistakable even to the most uninitiated viewer. Bendjelloul builds up his rediscovery of the forgotten artist like a detective story. The frame tale revolves around two South African Rodriguez fans who, during the late 90s, tried to locate their musical hero. Rumours abound that the singer has met a terrible fate – either he set himself on fire or shot himself on stage as a final expression of his frustration with the music industry.
It turns out that this dramatic account is far from the truth and that Rodriguez is alive and well, living in Detroit. This moment in the film’s story, also marks the first time, we as viewers are introduced to the ageing musician. From the kitchen window of a humble townhouse appears a pleasant-looking, dark-haired man: suddenly the film moves from musical mythtelling to grounded realism. This presentation of the story elegantly merges (his)tory with History. What appears weaker and more random, is the stylistic handling of the film. Bendjelloul uses archive material and new recordings of the two central locations Cape Town and Detroit as symbolic establishing shots. So here we have a documentary that is structured as a detective story and uses cityscapes as its atmospheric framework. This recalls Errol Morris’ groundbreaking crime story The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that ended up freeing an innocent man, while establishing a sophisticated play on the relationship between image, location and evidence. It was precisely the deliberate reframing and return to each location that gave Morris’ film its visual distinctiveness.
Unfortunately, in Bendjelloul’s case, this continuous mode of expression is not executed well enough to elevate the film to a groundbreaking work of art within the genre. The recurring images of the gloomy, night- lit streets of Detroit and sun-bleached Cape Town possess an overall dreamy quality, but after a while they become rather redundant. What seems even more randomly chosen is the director’s use of animated sequences. In Ari Folman’s celebrated war documentary Waltz with Bashir (Israel 2008) it was used as stylistic metaphor for memory, but in Searching for Sugar Man it appears uncertain, and to be honest irrelevant, why some scenes have to be played out like a cartoon. Instead, it is the music of Rodriguez that resonates memorably and the first couple of sentences from the eponymous drug song Sugar Man, played during the intro, end up carrying an unintended meaning:
«Sugar Man Won’t ya hurry Coz I’m tired of these scenes»
Bendjelloul’s debut feature has its flaws but one of its biggest redeeming qualities is the illumination of both political and music history through one man’s life-affirming story.