Movie Review: Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

sugar manSeen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’s harddrive.

Well you know me, consistently behind on all the hot documentaries of any given year, but I finally caught up with Searching for Sugar Man. Tracing the short-lived career of folk-rock singer Rodriguez and its strange aftermath, the film follows the impact of his music on the people of South Africa during Apartheid. Though virtually unknown in his United States home, there Rodriguez is more revered than Elvis Presley and his politically-charged songs are considered integral to the development of revolutionary opposition in the 70s and 80s. Long thought dead by a dramatic on-stage suicide, he is discovered alive and working in construction in Detroit decades after his only two records had been released, thanks to the efforts of diehard South African fans in the music business. His rediscovery leads to huge shows in South Africa and the possibility of a new album.

I’ve got some mixed feelings on this one. It’s an interesting story and Rodriguez himself makes for a fascinating and likable subject, but the actual doc has some problems. Certain information is passed over to make the story of his rediscovery more dramatic, and the talking heads seemed intent on maintaining a sensationalist approach to the tale. The thrust of the film is definitely the musician’s impact on and loyalty of his South African fans, as opposed to Rodriguez himself. He remains something of a soft-spoken mystery, either because that’s how he actually presents himself or that’s how the filmmakers wanted him to appear. It’s a little frustrating, because while he seems like a really talented and intelligent guy, I felt like there was this manufactured enigma built around him. His music is great (I don’t really care about the “cheap Bob Dylan” comparisons since I don’t listen to much Dylan), and his biography is pretty engaging. The scattered and questionable nature of the film’s narrative is what made it disappointing, since it always felt like there was more to tell about a certain aspect of it. I wanted more of Rodriguez himself, more about his short career, more about his music’s impact during Apartheid, more about the search for him and the record company who owned his work. It’s not that the doc needed to be longer, it just could have been more focused or more comprehensive.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Ack, I don’t know, I haven’t really seen many music documentaries. Maybe Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods since that’s another portrait of a somewhat enigmatic artist with a cult following?

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