Director: Malik Bendjelloul,
Watched in: Theater,
Where-are-they-now tales of celebrities making it big before a fast slide to oblivion are always hard to resist, but the makers of the new documentary Searching For Sugarman had a bigger problem. Their subject, a singer-songwriter from the early ‘70s going by the name Rodriguez, never even had a sustained music career, let alone a hit, and he was all but unknown in the United States.
Somewhere it is written everyone’s musical cachet must begin or end in America, but Cape Town, South Africa never read that memo. Thanks to a bootleg tape, Rodriguez’s honest, biting, inner-city tales of alienation slipped into that then isolated country. His music, ignored here, became an overnight sensation during the apartheid era, expressing the pent-up frustrations of a young, educated white population yearning for a way to protest the strict racial and structural codes of their society. The fact that Rodriguez was completely unaware of his new found celebrity, and that he may have burned himself alive on stage, makes for a terrific mystery story, one in which the details the filmmakers decided to leave unexplored only adds to the shaded myth of the man and his music.
His music provides the atmospheric soundtrack for the documentary, underscoring moody ‘70s era footage of Detroit and Cape Town, as the film shuffles back and forth through the years. Music journalists and a record store owner in South Africa talk about the singer’s impact and fame, his galvanizing influence on the white youth, and the apocryphal nature of his demise. In America, Rodriguez’s record producers and studio champions passionately defend his songwriting and lament his failure to make an impact with audiences. Back in Cape Town, a detective story ensues, with two diehard fans employing the new tools of the Internet to get to the bottom of the Rodriguez mystery. Their search leads back to the States, and to a series of giddy discoveries.
There are so many revelations in this film that any review of it almost demands spoiler alerts. I’ll steer clear of those myself, but I will say that the film functions as both a great yarn well-told and as a kind of meditation on fame, fortune, success and the importance of a grounded perspective. As it turns out, Rodriguez has a lot to say about living the themes of his own music, of being truthful and open to all the possibilities of life, not just those pursuits that bring money and celebrity. We learn much of this from interviews with his three grown daughters, who articulate their father’s philosophy in ways that he can’t. But the movie also leaves a lot of nagging questions unresolved. Who was his wife and why is she never mentioned? How many records did he sell in the U.S.? What really happened to all the money he made from his smash hits in South Africa? Did he stop performing and writing altogether after his first two albums flopped? And where and how did this son of a Mexican immigrant hone his songwriting and singing chops?
Searching For Sugarman, as directed by first-time Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, is artful and unhurried, crafted with a sensitivity to Rodriguez’s music. Several long snatches of his haunting songs play over sinuous tracking shots through the Detroit streets. The director makes limited but effective use of animation, one of my least favorite devices employed by too many documentary filmmakers, to recreate important moments of the story. And he also has the good luck to get his hands on old film and video footage, which help fill in other blanks of this enigmatic tale. From this collage emerges an incomplete but transfixing portrait; a picture that implies the search for the real Rodriguez is still ongoing.