‘Searching for Sugar Man’, insightful and entertaining

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Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

Written by Malik Bendjelloul

2012, USA

The less you know about Searching for Sugar Man, the better off you are. In fact I’d recommend not watching the trailer; and thus my review will be completely spoiler free. This is a film that relies on unexpected developments as much as it does the music, mood and the mysterious figure at the film’s center – an man known only as Rodriguez who became a 1970s Detroit folk-rocker whose albums bombed in the U.S., but outsold everyone (including The Beatles) in South Africa. Searching for Sugar Man is about the efforts of bold South African fans and their decades-long search for the artist who wrote the edgy, rebellious music that inspired a generation of South Africans living in a heavily-oppressed police state.

This fascinating portrait of a failed, forgotten early ’70s musical pioneer is by turns informative, intriguing, extensive and puzzling. Sugar Man opens as a detective story and part of the appeal of director Malik Bendjelloul’s cleverly structured documentary, is that the film is shaped like a mystery, constantly taking the viewers to unexpected places.

The filmmakers travel across the globe piecing together the clues of a man’s life. They didn’t have much to go on, and his mystique undoubtedly helps spur the entertainment value of the doc. The more we learn about the cultural and political impact of Rodriguez’s music in South Africa and the more we hear the many rumours surrounding his alleged suicide, the more engaged we are as viewers. Searching for Sugar Man is about a man searching for a ghost and the brilliance of the picture is how Bendjelloul gradually lifts the shroud of mystery surrounding his subject. There are interviews with shady music executives, popular disk jockeys, obsessive fans and record producers. Clues about Rodriguez are found in everything from his song lyrics to the few photographs of the singer, and a website dedicated to the search leads the filmmakers to one of the biggest reveals in movie history.

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Although it seems to unfold in linear fashion, Searching for Sugar Man plays with chronology towards the end. Bendjelloul uses animation, tantalizing snippets of Rodriguez’s songs, grainy concert footage and beautifully photographed travelogue scenes to unravel the mystery. For roughly 42 minutes, the film plays like a Hollywood thriller but quickly shifts gears to something completely different. The second half of the pic leaves some viewers let down: Sometimes a fantasy is better left alive, says one of the interviewees. This is true for some but not for all.

Searching for Sugar Man is a testament to how music can make an impact on an entire generation of folk halfway across the globe without its creator even knowing nor ever benefiting from it. Above all, Sugar Man is a thrilling illustration of the power of art, in this case music, and how music can inspire and change people in various ways.

Ricky D

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