As I walked into Searching For Sugar Man I had a million questions in my head. It turns out I wasn’t the only one. Even his biggest fans have been wondering just who is this guy Rodriguez? And that was before I’d even had a chance to think about whether I’d like his music.
Boy was I wrong. In hindsight I probably should’ve heard of this guy or at least had a quick peak at Google. But then, that would’ve ruined the little adventure that unfolded during the course of this documentary. I will say that I had imagined a number of different scenarios in my head and while I was partially right, the proceedings did still manage to surprise me.
Searching For Sugar Man sees first time director, Malik Bendjelloul expertly capturing the mad journey by a jeweller-turned-record store owner, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and music journalist, Craig Bartholemew, to get to the bottom of this musical mystery. Rodriguez is described as a soul artist even though his music is rather folk-like. On his debut album, Cold Fact, he looks like a hippie while his direct and often-political lyrics straddle the lines between blues and punk.
The whole affair starts off cloaked in as much mythology as the story of Daniel Johnston and his tale about making a pact at the crossroads with the devil. To wit, there was once this labourer living in Detroit and many people thought he was either a bum or a drifter. He made two albums, both commercial flops in America and yet the music – which is a major thread in the film – is nothing short of amazing (heck, I just rushed out and bought both albums online).
Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this mysterious, wandering sprit is that he did actually manage to make it big. He was reportedly bigger than The Rolling Stones and Elvis in Apartheid-era South Africa. Except that no one ever bothered to send him a memo about it. And besides, most people (especially fans) had been told that he’d died either from an overdose; in prison; or by suicide and there was one report that even said he’d set himself alight as the finale to one spectacularly, bad gig.
I found myself completely absorbed and taken in by this film, no mean feat considering how little I knew going in. The talking heads did adopt a rather rose-tinted view of this artist but even so, the movie did manage to tick all the right boxes. I found myself easily engaged and interested; there was a fabulous soundtrack worthy of inclusion in any self-respecting music fan’s collection and I laughed and cried.
So what did this search yield? Well, you’ll just have to go and see the film. But I will say that it did manage to present the cold, hard facts about Rodriguez some 40 years after his debut record. Plus, it received a rapturous applause in the cinema at the end so what more fitting close could you think of for one absolutely fascinating story.
Review score: 5 stars
Originally published on 6 June 2012 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/sydney/sounds-on-screen-sydney-film-festival-2012-review-searching-for-sugar-man-ctc
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