One of the most unavoidable results of documentary filmmaking is that the filmmakers will use their footage to exert an opinion on the subject, no matter how hard they might try to the contrary; indeed, one reason The War Room is so great is that the subjects, political advisers, are inherently evasive, but the cameras force them to play clean rather than dirty. In Searching for Sugarman, director Malik Bendjelloul enters into a world where a few dedicated fans have already done the grunt work, having already had a major impact on the legend of the musician known as Rodriguez before a documentary could muddy the story.
Who is Rodriguez, and more importantly, why should we care? Needless to say the documentary has you covered, but for the uninitiated, curious or leery, Sixto Rodriguez was an obscure songwriter/vagabond living in Detroit in the early '70s, and it would seem every industry insider who heard him fell in love. He had two albums produced, both of which flopped, and then mysteriously disappeared from the public eye as his legend grew, complete with outlandish tales surrounding his demise.
The next question is the obvious one: what legend? The fact that most who see this have most likely never heard of him makes his story no less relevant, and by the end you will most certainly understand why a documentary was worthwhile.
As a cinematic work, Searching for Sugarman is by no means a technical achievement. In fact, it's almost completely pedestrian, using a combination of pictures, stock footage, home videos, recreations, flash animation, and interviews in the most standard of way. The true achievement is in the storytelling, which unfolds brilliantly by feeding us little clues to draw us in, and as it turns out, the less you know about the story before going in, the more compelling it ultimately is.
Documentaries come in different forms; plenty of them are meant to educate, and while Searching for Sugarman does that, it's clearly designed to exhilarate. There was an opportunity to make this film more about Rodriguez' belated effect on apartheid culture in Johannesburg or seek some sort of greater relevancy for the subject, but this is thankfully left aside. This is a story about relatively unknown man who was essentially nothing in his own country but had success without ever knowing it abroad. Without a doubt, Sixto Rodriguez is a compelling figure, a remarkable talent, maybe the closest thing to an underdog the music scene has had in the last fifty years, and with Searching for Sugarman able to make the case, a true poet and a gentleman. Even if you don't love it, it's impossible to hate it.
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