Searching For Sugar Man
Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man recognizes its main draw: the incredible story of late-‘60s singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who was completely ignored in the U.S. but became an enormous star – anonymously – in South Africa, inspiring a generation to begin the civil rights struggle that eventually helped bring down Apartheid. Though Rodriguez was thought by most South Africans to have died in one of several dramatic ways, two men underwent a decade-long odyssey to learn his story. It reveals that the artist is alive, working as a laborer in his hometown of Detroit. The question of how he could go for so long without knowing that he’s a cultural icon is not answered (nor is the closely related issue of where his presumed South African royalties have been going for thirty years). This musicological sleuthing, and the barely believable discrepancy between Rodriguez’s nonexistence in the States and his exalted status in South Africa, would be enough to make almost any film on the subject riveting. Rodriguez’s perceptive and bluesy songs, insistent James Taylor-esque voice, and ear-catching arrangements don’t hurt either.
However, Bendjelloul, who initially stumbled onto this subject while searching for stories for Swedish television, helps things along with a light touch. With a wide variety of archival footage, landscapes, stills, and even animation, he provides visual interest without distracting from what his enthusiastic interview subjects are saying. His deft circumvention of talking-heads limitations makes for an extremely engaging film about a quite retiring artist.