One of the greatest mystery’s released this year is the little known story of an American rock musician. Searching For Sugar Man draws viewers into the unknown and spins an intoxicating tale about Rodriguez, the rockstar who never was. The film, by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, takes the audience down a path of intrigue that looks at the myths stardom can perpetuate, and the hard realities struggling artists face.
The story is so strange that it’s almost impossible to believe. In the early 1970’s, an artist named Rodriguez rose up from the streets of Detroit. He was signed to Sussex Records and released two albums, his first, Cold Fact in 1970, and the last, Coming from Reality in 1971. For whatever reason, despite his talent, Rodriguez never took off in North America, was quickly dropped from his record label and faded into oblivion. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, his record spread through South Africa like wildfire. Rodriguez was a bonafide top seller. Strangely enough, due to the closed media in apartheid era South Africa, no one could get any information on the singer, and it was assumed that he was just as popular in America. One of the film’s lead figures, ‘Sugar’, the owner of a record store, noted that everyone he knew growing up in South Africa adored Rodriguez. It wasn’t until later that Rodriguez fans learned their love was fairly unique, as he was entirely unknown in his home country. The obscurity surrounding the singer allowed for the spread of wild rumours regarding his life and death. Searching for Sugar Man is told mainly from the eyes of two South African’s trying to find the truth behind what happened to their idol.
The movie opens as a dark enigma, and serves as a telling example of the hard realities of the music industry. The unceremonious dropping of Rodriguez from his record label after such a short period of time is sad, though not surprising. The mystery of what happened to Rodriguez is made all the better by the construction of a compelling narrative, and fascinating interviews. The beginning of Searching for Sugar Man often reminded me of Errol Morris’s iconic film, The Thin Blue Line. Like Morris, Bendjelloul takes the facts and testimonials at his disposal and produces an engrossing story. Furthermore, he is very strategic in his revelation of various pieces to the Rodriguez puzzle, in order to keep audiences thirsty for more. Searching for Sugar Man is further enriched through the use of a wide range of supporting material. We are treated to interviews, photographs, home video, re-enactments, and a soundtrack made up of Rodriguez’s music to help fill out the story.
Of course, Searching for Sugar Man is not without it’s faults. I suspect that some facts regarding the extent of Rodriguez’s impact on the Afrikaners social awakening may have been twisted and exaggerated. Also, the failure of the filmmaker to produce any solid numbers regarding the amount of Rodriguez records sold in South Africa is a little odd. However, despite the lack of concrete figures surrounding his record sales, the film makes it clear that Rodriguez’s music had become a large part of South African culture in the 1970’s. Bendjelloul has brought us an engaging, stranger than fiction tale that had me hooked almost instantly. The playful and clever nature of the film keeps its audience guessing, and makes Searching for Sugar Man a powerful viewing experience. Please note it is probably best to go into the film as a blank slate, knowing as little about its subject matter as possible. All you need to do is sit down, and prepare to be blown away.