Review of Searching for Sugar Man
on 2012-08-14 10:02
Movie Review: "Searching for Sugar Man"
-- Rating: Not Rated
Length: 86 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2012
Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul
Genre: Documentary, Biography and Music
"Searching for Sugar Man" is a documentary that investigates the mystery of Sixto Rodriguez. Starring Sixto Rodriguez and Malik Bendjelloul, the movie tells the story of a musician's journey into and out of the spotlight, both in the United States and across the world. For music lovers, the film is an interesting look at an often-ignored section of the industry-"lost" musicians.
The documentary focuses on Sixto Rodriguez, who began his music career in Detroit in the 1970s. Rodriguez, who is of Mexican and American heritage, burst onto the city's music scene with the album "Cold Fact," which contained songs that Rodriguez had been performing around Detroit for years. Most were about drugs and social issues, including the song the movie is named after, "Sugar Man." In 1971, the artist released a second album called "Coming from Reality." Both albums were well received by critics but experienced dismal sales. After his records failed, Rodriguez found himself without a contract or a record label.
After 1971, Rodriguez faded into obscurity. Without a steady income from his music, he was forced into a life of hard labor. Although "Searching for Sugar Man" would have viewers believe that he stopped making music entirely, Rodriguez continued to play throughout his life-though without note from audiences or critics in the United States.
Across the world, however, Rodriguez was a household name. Years after the release of "Cold Fact," the album found its way to South Africa, where listeners were in the throes of the Apartheid era. Torn by tradition and the cruel reality of their society, white South Africans found inspiring messages in Rodriguez's music. The soulful lyrics of the songs spoke to them, and "Cold Fact" became the soundtrack of the movement for equal rights. Although white South Africans of the time are often remembered as oppressive, "Searching for Sugar Man" gives voice to an often-ignored group who were vehemently against Apartheid.
As "Cold Fact" grew in popularity, Rodriguez's old label began to receive royalties for the song. Rodriguez, completely unaware of his success across the world, didn't see a penny of the money. To his South African fans, Rodriguez was a mystery, though his name was equally as recognizable as The Beatles or Elvis. In the movie, one South African fan refers to "Cold Fact" as "one of the most famous records of all time." Without any information about the artist, fans began to concoct wild stories, including a particularly grotesque tale about his alleged on-stage suicide.
"Searching for Sugar Man" follows two South Africans as they search for the musician who inspired a generation. Although it is a documentary, the truth is so unlikely and exciting that the film feels more like a drama. Viewers are certain to respond to the mystery surrounding Rodriguez and the film will have them on the edge of their seats as the story unfolds. It is impossible not to hope that the musician will finally find the fame he deserves.
Director Malik Bendjelloul happened upon a fascinating story in Sixto Rodriguez, and his documentary makes the most of the drama. Although he skated over several important facts-like Rodriguez's continuing music career-the omissions can be overlooked in favor of the overall story. As a result, "Searching for Sugar Man" is a mysterious, thrilling tale that seems too strange to be true.
Like any good drama, "Searching for Sugar Man" has a villain. In this case, it is record label executive Clarence Avant, who appears on film with flimsy excuses about the label's failure to pay Rodriguez a percentage of his album's South African profits. In comparison with the genuine sweetness of other characters in the movie, Avant seems particularly dastardly. Rather than defiling the story, Avant's presence only inspires viewers to root for Rodriguez's comeback.
"Searching for Sugar Man" was released almost 14 years after the action unfolded, but the mysterious tale is timeless. Whether or not viewers are interested in the music industry, they are certain to be drawn into the story of an underdog who triumphs despite seemingly insurmountable odds. The movie is spattered with real-life footage of Rodriguez in concert, which reinforces the fact that audiences are watching a true story. The constant reminder is necessary-without it, the incredible tale seems more like fiction than fact. Overall, "Searching for Sugar Man" is sweet and uplifting. Although the movie makes occasional references to violence and drugs, it is an entertaining and educational option for the whole family.
Rating: 3 out of 5