"One of the most illuminating and captivating documentaries to have been released for a good long while..."
It is generally considered that for a documentary to be a success, it needs to be both educational and entertaining in equal measure, and if you manage that, you're on to a winner, and Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man does both of these things and so much more, in one of the most illuminating and captivating documentaries to have been released for a good long while.
In what is Bendjelloul's début feature film, the Swedish film maker goes on the hunt for the talented, yet completely disregarded musician Sixto Rodriguez, affectionately known as 'Sugar Man'. Rodriguez released two records in the 1970's - gritty and emotional, the albums impressed record producers and those within the industry, yet he barely sold any copies or gained any fame for his efforts, as far they all knew anyway...
Unbeknown to him, Rodriguez was a huge success in South Africa, offering something completely unique and revolutionary to people who were living under the Apartheid regime. Bendjelloul, engrossed in this tale of a man who was a superstar in one nation yet knew nothing of it, follows two South African fans and journalists - Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholemew - both determined to get some answers about a musician they both adore, but know absolutely nothing about. As far as they are aware Rodriguez committed suicide, yet the pair still want to discover what became of Sugar Man and how he died, chasing the smallest of details such as even finding out his first name...
In what is one of the most incredible untold stories in rock 'n' roll history, Searching for Sugar Man presents a story that you'll be amazed you hadn't heard before, with twists and turns at every corner as the story unfolds. One of the most astounding aspects to this picture is just how talented Rodriguez was. His lack of success anywhere outside of South Africa is bewildering, as his lyrics are fantastic, with songs that Bob Dylan would have been proud of. The entire film’s soundtrack is made up of Rodriguez's tracks, as Bendjelloul is almost providing a platform for his work to be heard, finally allowing him the success he has always deserved.
There is a wonderful sense of hope emanating from this picture, as although upsetting and moving in parts, it's effectively a heart-warming tale, that goes further than merely looking into Rodriguez's past, as the entire narrative is presented against the consistent theme of hope, as his music touched so many people in South Africa at a time when the country was in disarray. He sold in the region of half a million records, and his music went beyond just 3 minute pop songs, instead working as an escapism for people that needed to deviate away from reality, using Rodriguez to do just that.
For this wonderfully uplifting and fascinating tale to be brought to life on the big screen, it still requires a talented director, and Bendjelloul tells this tale as well as anybody could. He manages to depict Rodriguez's music, life and legacy as well as South African politics, all in equal measure, not focusing on one thing in particular but bringing them all together masterfully for the greatest possible effect. The story is told chronologically, and we feel as though we are learning of this tale at the same time as both Bendjelloul and the South African fans are too, as everything just unravels in front of our very eyes.
In terms of documentary-making housekeeping rules, once again the film gets it spot on. It's simply a well-made piece of cinema, and the way we are kept from Rodriguez for so long is enticing, adding a sense of mystery to an already shady character. We don't even see his face until around a quarter of an hour in, but as we grow to know more about him, we then completely fall for Rodriguez, despite knowing so little about him, almost putting us in the shoes of his South African fans. It's clear to see how they became so transfixed with the star, as his identity (or lack of...) and music is infectious and mesmerising. Bendjelloul also implements the occasional animated interlude, which works well as they bring Rodriguez to life, offering us an insight into the life he may have led in the early 70's, filling the void where we would usually be treated to past footage, yet in this instance there isn't any.
Opening in cinemas on the same night that the London Olympics officially begin, there is only one way to spend that evening, as I urge you to go and see this movie. I don't care what Danny Boyle has in store for the opening ceremony. However whatever you do, do not research Rodriguez in any capacity or to any great deal of length first, you have to keep it all as a surprise - and I say in the greatest of confidence that you will not regret it.