With the saturation of rampant materialism derived from mediocre non-art in our society, it’s refreshing to see a film that brings everything into a more painfully lucid perspective. Such is the case with Searching For Sugar Man, a docu-mystery that searches for a long lost Detroit musician known only as Rodriguez. The film explains how, in the early 1970’s, Rodriguez put out a few albums that, despite high critical acclaim, never amounted to anything – in fact, the albums are for the most part unavailable in this country. Curiously enough, bootleg albums somehow made it to South Africa, where anti-establishment lyrics spawned a significant revolution against the existing Apartheid in the country. As a result, in South Africa, Rodriguez, who was only heard about through sensationalist rumors and believed to be dead, became bigger than Elvis, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones.
The film’s drive comes from two South African fans who decide to learn as much of the real story about Rodriguez as they can. Hunting through his mournful lyrics for clues, talking with anyone who knew the man personally, they finally discover the miraculous truth, which, to avoid spoiling it for those who have yet to see Sugar Man, I will refrain from revealing. The film’s pacing is perfect, like a well-crafted detective story, feeding the viewer just enough speculation to remain fascinating, just enough intrigue to keep us guessing what secrets will be discovered next.
One of the great things about this film is it’s almost-maudlin soundtrack, and how each song tells us a little something more about this mysterious person. The title song, “Sugar Man,” is a wailing acoustic ballad about acquiring drugs to cope with everyday life. “Street Boy” paints a misunderstood kid who is more at home on the streets. Each song adds a piece to his mysterious persona, and one cannot help but think of other mythical, misunderstood icons like James Dean and Jim Morrison, others whose greatness can only be speculated. And we may ask questions: “Who was he?”; “Why didn’t his music become mainstream?”; “What possessed him to end his own life?”
Searching for Sugar Man is a unique blend of documentary, mystery, musical, and political drama and can hold its own against other great genre films like Network, The Usual Suspects, and Walk the Line. And while the uplift the film evokes might not necessarily be euphoric, we are definitely left with a case of good vibes.
Searching For Sugarman is currently nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. It won the audience award and best documentary at Sundance early in 2012.