After spending the last two weeks at the Milwaukee Film Festival watching several documentaries and movies that made me question my faith in humanity and the decency of my fellow man, it's kind of nice to see a film like "Searching for Sugar Man." That isn't to say that those festival films weren't terrific – several of them sit comfortably on my mental best of the year list right now – but it's refreshing to see something that can so effortlessly make your heart smile.
The movie, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, follows a pair of South African music junkies, Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, who go on a quest to answer the question: "What ever happened to Rodriguez?" The odds are good that you're currently asking yourself the counter question: "Who the heck is Rodriguez?"
If you live in America, Rodriguez was just a '70s folk musician who didn't even sell enough records to qualify as a flash in the pan. One of the film's interviews estimates Rodriguez sold maybe six albums in the U.S.
Music insiders loved his music, but for some reason, he never caught a break with American listeners. Maybe it was his often-sad lyrics about the hard life on Detroit streets that alienated audiences. Perhaps it was just the cold unpredictable music industry that often rewards luck over talent. Either way, in the States, Rodriguez faded into absolute obscurity.
In South Africa, however, it is a far different story. There, Rodriguez is one of the country's most influential pop culture icons and one of its top-selling artists. It turns out his two albums, with their frank talk about sex and speaking out about social issues, were major cornerstones for the South African revolution against apartheid. As a result, half a globe away, Rodriguez is bigger than Elvis.
Despite rumors of Rodriguez's grotesque on-stage suicide (some say he shot himself; others say he lit himself on fire), Segerman and Strydom begin investigating the man's lyrics and album cases to discover what may have actually happened to the music legend. I won't give away the results here (the trailer does a fine enough job on its own), but it's enough to say their findings are genuinely heartwarming.
Bendjelloul has a terrific story with Rodriguez, and thankfully, he doesn't waste it. It's a well-told tale that starts as an intriguing music industry mystery and ends with an enchanting payoff that has the power to move audiences – even if they know what's coming.
Amongst the shots of South Africa and Detroit, the director also interweaves beautiful little animations into the film that bring even more color to the already bright collection of characters. Some of their interviews overlap points a bit – and their interview with Rodriguez's former producer Clarence Avant turns into a jarring look at the fickle industry – but they've always got good stories or insights to share.
It helps that their musical subject created some pretty awesome tunes. Rodriguez's music provides much of the soundtrack for "Searching for Sugar Man," and they're freakishly addictive. Hits like "I Wonder" are fun and catchy – it's no wonder why it became such a hit in South Africa – while other numbers, like "Sugar Man" and "Cause," show the brutally heart wrenching and honest lyrics that spoke so clearly to his producers and fans.
Of course, there's a sad cautionary story inside the documentary about the fickle music industry. But what hits home in Bendjelloul's story is the power of music and the impact of a single person, even if they don't realize it. We all hope someday to be remembered for what we've done on this planet, so his story of redemption and newfound appreciation strikes a definite emotional chord.
It's easy to overlook a documentary like "Searching for Sugar Man" when they're so many other documentaries about serious topics hogging much of the spotlight (and the Oscar nominations). But much like its star, the film is too good to be forgotten. It's like a catchy song, causing a smile every time it plays through your head.
Check me if I'm wrong, but this is actually a docu-drama, not a documentary. In other words, it's fiction, more along the lines of Spinal Tap than a true documentary. That's not to say it's not a good movie, it is, but I'm pretty sure it's not a true story.
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