Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

“And I wonder how many dreams have gone bad”

Well, the Oscars were last night, and if you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll notice that I wasn’t successful in my goal of watching all nine Best Picture nominees before the ceremony. I’ll keep at it, and will maybe write something about who I think should have won. However, there was movie that took home a statuette last night that I’ve been meaning to see for a while now. Therefore today’s movie is the Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, Searching for Sugar Man.

The film is, essentially, a rockumentary, but one of a decidedly different flavor. In the early 1970’s an American musician named Rodriguez was discovered playing in dive bars in Detroit. His producers thought he was brilliant, and a better lyricist than Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, his music sold not a lick in America, and he was dropped from his label shortly after his second album was released.

However, after some time, Rodriguez started gaining some attention in South Africa. His songs about living in poverty, and resisting the establishment resonated with much of the population and became hugely popular. Of course, global communication then wasn’t what it was now, and South Africa in particular was under international sanctions. As a result, Rodriguez didn’t know he was “bigger than Elvis,” while his South African fans all subscribed to rumors that he was dead, having committed suicide on stage. Decades later, a pair of dedicated fans set out to see if they could find out the truth about who this enigmatic artist was and how he died. They were shocked to discover, thanks to the internet, that their nation’s biggest rock star was alive and well, and working as a laborer in Detroit. Thus we have a movie.

The film is remarkably well made. It first introduces the viewer to Rodriguez’s music, then to the culture that embraced him, the search for him, and finally to the man himself. It’s a dynamic and thoughtful documentary, from a director, Malik Bendjelloul, who knows what story he wants to tell, and gets right to telling it.

That said, what really makes the film work is the music itself. The soundtrack is comprised entirely of songs by Rodriguez, from the titular “Sugar Man”, to the protest anthem “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues”, to the crowd-pleasing “I Wonder”. The music is, largely, the subject of the film, but it also punctuates it with each of the songs presented in the body of the film given time to play, thus neatly dividing the narrative segments.

Searching for Sugar Man really is an entertaining and well-made documentary. The Best Documentary Feature category is one where the Academy often decides they need to get political, at the expense of quality filmmaking, but they haven’t done so here. Instead they’ve rewarded a fantastic story about a wonderful subject. However, I’m not sure that it is all that tremendous. Having seen the film, I feel moved to find out some more about the subject, and maybe listen to some of his music, but I don’t know if the film will really stay with me. Still, I think it’s a fine film, and it is absolutely Worth Seeing.

[Searching for Sugar Man (2012) – Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul – Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug references]

OM|ED Rating: Worth Seeing