There are some difficult documentaries in the Oscar field this year. Filmmakers have addressed rape in the military, grassroots HIV treatment, Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and controversial Israeli secret service activities. These are hardly feel-good viewing experiences. There is one other documentary in the mix that is not like the others, one that provides a more purely enjoyable viewing experience, Malik Bendjelloul‘s Searching for Sugar Man.
In the early 1970s, a handful of American music lovers and producers were infatuated with the lyrics and music of Rodriguez. He recorded a couple of albums, both of which did poorly in sales here in the United States. He faded into obscurity and rumors began to circulate that he had actually committed suicide on stage during a live performance. Meanwhile, during the height of apartheid in South Africa, Rodriguez was a hero to younger South Africans who were disillusioned with the racist oppressive regime. Rodriguez’s music became the soundtrack to their protests and, as a result, was simultaneously banned from the airwaves.
Searching for Sugar Man follows two of Rodriguez’s South African fans, Steve Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, on a quest to learn more about their idol, why he wasn’t as famous in the United States, and what actually happened to him. What they learned was almost beyond belief, and what happened next was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. SPOILER: Rodriguez was/is alive and doing fine in Detroit working as a laborer and community activist, oblivious to his international fame. Segerman and Bartholomew find him and organize a series of concerts throughout South Africa, all of which sell out.
Searching for Sugar Man is a treasure in so many ways. First it (re)introduces American (and international) audiences to an extremely talented singer/songwriter whose prophetic songwriting (in the vein of Bob Dylan) clearly deserves to be (re)visited. That Rodriguez never “caught on” in his prime surely rises to the top of any pop culture mysteries list. None of the talking heads in the documentary can figure out why, but all the music producers who worked with him swear he was the best ever…even better than Dylan, one argues.
The film is also beautiful to watch, boasting some slick cinematography, editing, and animations not often found in what is frequently a more static filmmaking genre. It provides insight into apartheid South Africa that might be new to many viewers, particularly around the issue of banned music, films, and television programs, for example. It also includes some moving images of Detroit, past and present, that reveal the toll that a poor economy and unemployment can take on a city.
The heart of Searching for Sugar Man, however, is Rodriguez himself, who we meet about a third of the way into the film. He is an unflappable soul who took life as it came to him. He confesses that he loves to play the guitar, but his peers and daughters also reveal that he has a deep love for the poor and underprivileged. While his lack of success as a musician would have been a source of great frustration, he kept on going, living his modest life and helping his neighbors as he could. Even when he finally receives acclaim and some financial rewards, he gives a great majority of his earnings away to family and friends.
Watching his story unfold, it’s almost impossible to believe that he really did live two lives. The most remarkable part about watching Searching for Sugar Man is seeing his Detroit life gradually catch up with his South African fame. Unlike so many aspiring, but for whatever reason unsuccessful, artists, Rodriguez finally got to see the effects that he had hoped his music would always achieve. As one of his co-workers says, “What he’s demonstrated, very clearly, is that you have a choice. He took all that torment, all that agony, all that confusion and pain, and he transformed it into something beautiful. [...] Insofar as he does that, I think he’s representative of the human spirit, of what’s possible.” While this reflection certainly applies to Rodriguez’s music, it’s also a fitting description of the way in which he carried himself and interacted with others.
This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary field is another rich one that will challenge all viewers. In Searching for Sugar Man, they have recognized a film that is as joyous as it is unbelievable and turned this viewer on, at least, to a hidden American treasure.
Searching for Sugar Man (86 mins.) is currently available on DVD. You can also download Rodriguez’s albums on iTunes.