Searching For Sugar Man

Searching For Sugar Man

****

Reviewed by: David Graham

Debut director Malik Bendjelloul delivers one of the most intriguing music documentaries of recent times that also acts as a seductive introduction to and further revival for one of music's great unsung heroes. Recounting a hotly-tipped folk-rocker's stalled early Seventies career could have made for an illuminating enough tale of showbiz's fickle nature in its own right, but focusing on the feverish fanbase that arose around illegal bootlegs in Apartheid-oppressed South Africa gives this film a unique resonance that should leave choked-up audiences with ear-to-ear grins, not to mention a new I-Tunes wish-list.

Enigmatic musician Sixto Rodriguez had been playing Detroit's scuzziest bars for years when he was discovered by astonished record producers in the late Sixties and corralled into the studio to record a couple of commercially under-performing masterpieces. A reclusive presence who was more comfortable hanging on street corners or slumming it in construction work than playing the fame game (he often sang with his back to the audience), the second generation Mexican soon slipped into obscurity in America, but in distant South Africa it was a different story. His anti-establishment songs became the catalyst for white Afrikaaners to rise up against Apartheid, and his first album Cold Fact became one of the most popular (albeit illegitimate) records of its time, his reputation only growing as the years passed. In this film, a couple of die-hard Rodriguez fans eventually take it upon themselves to uncover the truth behind his fate, leading to a discovery beyond their wildest dreams.

Opening with Rodriguez devotee Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman driving along the Cape to his namesake song, the effect this music and the mysterious man behind it had on spellbound listeners is effortlessly conveyed. Proceeding to moving testimonials from the producers who originally discovered and worked with the performer, Bendjelloul often allows the timeless tunes to speak for themselves; they really do have a gritty poetry and romantic quality that's inherently cinematic, especially coupled with the roaming shots of the town that birthed them. Their political implications are probed in depth but pretension is avoided by linking their rousing message with the real struggles both the artist and the listeners were facing at the time.

We meet a variety of interesting characters, from dogged musicologists to unscrupulous label bosses, as Bendjelloul objectively examines show-business exploitation, South African censorship and the power of 'cult' figures to bring people together, even if hearsay can ultimately keep them in the dark. These three forces - the US record money-men, the people in Apartheid power and the South African fans - are shown to be in a state of conflict where Rodriguez himself is lost in the middle. It's a saddening account of how corruption can leave an artist destitute, but the passion his music inspires in his fans always keeps the film's tone optimistic.

As the plot thickens, the narrative structure imposed on events can seem a little manipulative - occasionally foregoing chronology in favor of dramatic impact and hiding the real extent of Rodriguez's fame - but it's an understandable tactic to keep the audience involved and to build to a wonderfully moving climax. Some of the interview segments overlap each other into repetition - there's definitely about 10 minutes of superfluous recollection that could have been chopped - but it'll be a hard heart that hasn't warmed to each of the main subjects by the end.

The twin settings of Detroit and Cape Town are powerfully established as unique characters themselves, inextricably linked with the experience of the musician and his fans respectively. The contrast is startling, from the smoke-clogged and often snowbound ghettos that inform Rodriguez's songs to the sun-drenched but politically turbulent bay city where they find their most receptive audience. As latter-day revelations bring the film into a redemptive second half, Bedjelloul works hard to maintain the sense of Rodriguez's humble integrity while painting a bittersweet picture of his eventual renaissance.

A delightful experience for musos and the uninitiated alike, Searching For Sugar Man deserves to reach as wide an audience as its underdog hero eventually did himself. The film wisely avoids delving too deep into South African history, using it as a potent backdrop rather than a distraction, while the American footage is genuinely evocative and the focus on Rodriguez's family towards the end ensures there won't be a dry in the house. Regardless of your cinematic and musical taste, expect to be enraptured and informed by Bendjelloul's assured debut, and converted to Rodriguez's singular voice and vision.

Reviewed on: 07 Aug 2012
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The true story of a brilliant yet forgotten musician and the revolutionaries he inspired on another continent.
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Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Writer: Malik Bendjelloul, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman, Craig Bartholomew Strydom

Starring: Sixto Rodriguez

Year: 2012

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Sweden, UK, Finland


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