A magical, mysterious tour-de-force
Search no further for the year’s best documentary. If the story of 70s singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez had ended with the gifted artist’s release of two records that went absolutely nowhere on the charts, then his mere existence might still be completely unknown anywhere outside his native Detroit. And the breathtaking, heart-wrenching, almost impossible to believe documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man” would never have been made.
Fortunately for music and documentary fans everywhere, filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul decided that Rodriguez’s story needed to be told – and it needs little embellishment to make it one of the most fascinating biographies ever put on film.
Rodriguez is a Mexican-American street poet whose original music details with stark clarity and brutal honesty the challenges of inner city life, often chronicling his own experiences with drugs, love lost, and the often bleak but wistful hope of the hard-working poor man. His penchant for vivid lyrics draws comparisons to an urban Dylan, while his voice recalls the vibrato-less tenor of James Taylor, albeit a little more tobacco-tarnished. Rodriguez’s music is unquestionably solid and his lack of success is tragic, no doubt.
But shrouded in mystery is what happened to Rodriquez after his two records (released in 1970 and 1971) failed to chart. Some said Rodriguez set himself afire on stage or in some other fashion committed suicide. Others believed he simply disappeared and likely died a quiet death.
But what “Searching for Sugar Man” so eloquently captures is how Rodriguez’s music took on a second life of its own, becoming an anthem for millions around the globe in apartheid South Africa. Unbeknownst to anyone associated with the artist, re-releases of his records achieved platinum sales in South Africa, gained extensive airplay in New Zealand and Australia, thrusting the inherently modest, self-effacing musician to cult status.
There’s more to the story that shouldn’t be disclosed here. “Searching for Sugar Man” is that rare documentary that captures, better than any fictional portrayal ever could, the power of music to transcend cliché and move people in often unpredictable, unimaginable ways. The interviews with fans, music journalists, and former producers are riveting and filled with the kind of authentic sentiment normally associated with legendary icons.
In his own way, Rodriguez too is an icon, and the low budget, richly earnest conviction of “Searching for Sugar Man” will absolutely make a fan out of you.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug reference.