Director: Malik Bendjelloul
WARNING: Sorry if this review sounds vague. This film must have certain aspects withheld, least it spoil the film. Short Version: Heart warming celebration to music and a man.
Searching for Sugarman does what a good documentary should. I went in knowing nothing and exited knowing a little bit more about a subject. I also came out thoroughly entertained by a film that at first appears to be a dark thriller before blooming into a small, heart warming tale. Bendjelloul does nothing out of the ordinary with the subject matter in terms of the film making process. But the simple effective execution of the work is what makes a film such as this stand out.
We are told of a Detroit musician with a Dylan-esque voice and similar subject material, who produces two albums that is enjoyed by the few who hear it in the U.S and yet sells peanuts. We are told that the young musician is so distraught from his experience, that he kills himself on stage...This is no Cobain or Buckley, and as this musician didn't "make it" his name fades into obscurity...until a copy of the musician's record is brought from America to South Africa during the midsts of the apartheid.
To say any more will ruin the film. In fact I feel that I may have already said too much. The joy of Searching for Sugarman (apart from the music) is that, in an age where films like Prometheus, leak viral clues to into every orifice of a pop culture junkie, to go into the documentary with no knowledge makes it's surprises and outcomes all the more sweeter.
The film paints a picture of an artist in the truest form. The mystery that is set in place is tightly handled, as we are drip feed information about Rodriguez, an enigmatic musician, whose inner city folk music enriches young liberal South African musicians. His work details a struggle, which strikes a chord so deep that some of his listeners become musicians themselves. Rodriguez' album goes platinum in South Africa and all the while the creator knew nothing.
The plot thickens and we are introduced to two sleuths who do anything to try and find out who Rodriguez was and what actually happened to him. It's easy to get wrapped up in the enthusiasm as we slowly piece together the tale. The film gives us a pantomime villain in Motown Record's Clarence Avant. His money orientated rant and who cares attitude betray the films overwhelming sweetness, but also illustrates the importance of the films plight and message, if although coming off more than a little forced. However, that is how many documentaries come across. The film does have an air of manipulation at times. At it's weakest points, I can't say that I was getting that feeling of the so-called "ecstatic truth" that Herzog reaches for.
This does not mean that such a heart warming film doesn't have a lot to say. It is worth noting that much of the film talks about a that now distant future before the internet. it reminds us just how small that world wide web has made the world as the revelation that take place within the film could only happen before the days of web 2.0.
It's also worth noting that the film's story takes place before the internet, we realise just how small the www has made the world as something like this could only be happen before the days of digital communication. Despite a few reservations of the slightly manipulative aspects that seeped through, what can't be faked is the reaction and enthusiasm the lies in Rodriguez's music in South Africa. The films final act is a brilliant celebration of a man's work. The contrast of how the likes of Clarence Avant viewed Rodriguez compared to the unbelievably humble way of the musician himself as we discover clues about his past not only display the power of music, but a powerful reflection of what is considered to be an artist.
This is a revealing comparison to a film like Overnight, which deals with an obnoxious nobody becoming a somebody, in such a way you shed a small tear for humanity. Searching for Sugarman shows the other extreme, in which if a man has humility as a basic foundation, he could be considered to some a true artist.