Title: Searching For Sugarman
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Release Date: Out Now
“Singer-songwriters” and “politicians” are nowadays thought of as two entirely separate professions, but there was a time when guitar-strumming, philosophizing poets had the power to direct the course of history. The likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon have become household names but ask even the keenest of music buffs to tell you about “Sixto Rodriguez” and chances are you’ll receive a blank look.
But this may change thanks to Searching for Sugar Man, a recently-released documentary by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul. This heart-warming and inspirational story has already scooped a few prizes at the Sundance Film Festival including World Cinema Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award, World Cinema Documentary, and may finally bring Rodriguez’ music the recognition it deserves.
The film charts Rodriguez’ brief musical career- a short stint in the seventies where he released two folk-rock albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. Rodriguez was discovered playing small-time gigs in Detroit and was all set to be the “next big thing”, but somehow his records went almost entirely unnoticed and the musician sank into obscurity.
However, in 1991, Rodriguez’ albums appeared in record shops in South Africa of all places, where the “failed” musician became bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones. In fact his ballads became the anthems of the anti-apartheid, disenfranchised white Afrikaner generation and helped fuel the movement that brought down the National Party in 1994. Bendelloul’s documentary also tells the tale of two of Rodriguez’ South African fans who took upon themselves the mission of finding out who the real Rodriguez was and what happened to him. Most importantly, they wanted to find out the truth behind the gruesome rumours of his dramatic on-stage suicide.
The appeal of this documentary lies not only in its old-school anti-establishment message but in the genuinely stunning location shots. The poverty of the grimy, neon-lit streets of Detroit is juxtaposed against glittering cityscapes of Cape Town and the overwhelming beauty of Table Mountain and the South African coast. The film also takes a detour to the glamorous world of LA as the director interviews various producers involved in making Rodriguez’ albums. The documentary is interspersed with footage of the anti-apartheid protests that Rodriguez’ work helped incite, and South African fans whose lives were changed by these melodies also have their say. His music provides a backdrop to much of the movie and the quality of his songs will leave you wondering why these albums went unnoticed in his native land.
This saga of a humble folk singer bringing about real social and political change seems more like a fairytale than a real-life documentary. Unfortunately not all the questions the documentary raises are answered which leaves the audience with a certain amount of dissatisfaction. But Searching For Sugar Man is nonetheless one of those rare entities: a feel-good film based on real life events, and anyone who claims to love music should ensure they don’t miss out.
By Alison Lee