Searching for Sugar Man may not quite be, as director Malik Bendjelloul excitedly proclaims in the making of Blu-ray extra, the greatest story you’ll ever hear, but it is an ultra-fun one, told by the director with style in his movie directing debut.
The Best Documentary Feature finalist at this year’s Academy Awards tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an American folk singer who recorded two little-known albums in the early ’70s and would have faded into obscurity if not for the seriously geeky and dedicated interest of some South African fans. Mix all those crazy elements together, and you have a rousing tale that would be hard to believe if it all weren’t amazingly true. Hit the jump for a review of Searching for Sugar Man on Blu-ray.
Bendjelloul’s movie, which you can tell from the start is a labor of love, is equal parts musical biopic (though only in the most enjoyably elliptical sense) and a quest, on the part of the South Africans who somehow got their hands on Rodriguez’s music halfway around the world and, in an even odder twist, made it a key part of the soundtrack for Afrikaan youth opposed to the policy of Apartheid.
The movie largely unfolds in three chapters: An introduction to Rodriguez’s life and career (almost entirely outside of music), the mission of a few seriously devoted South Africans to find out what happened to him and, in the finale, what happens when they all come together. Each is better than the one that comes before it, giving Bendjelloul’s movie a narrative drive sorely missing from too many dramatic features.
From the outset, it’s clear that Bendjelloul is an attentive admirer of director James Marsh (Man on a Wire, Project Nim), and adapts many of his techniques to re-create scenes in Rodriguez’s life that unfolded largely before he was alive and certainly weren’t documented at the time. Through a mix of stylish live-action re-creations and creative animation, Bendjelloul and his co-conspirators make Rodriguez’s home city of Detroit as much of a character in the opening chapter as he is himself (without ever pummeling viewers with the comparison the city itself offers to Rodriguez’s unfulfilled potential.)
Things start to get seriously geeky in a great way once we meet the two principal players in the South African part of this tale, record store owner Steve “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew, whose enthusiasm for the career of this never-was would be grating if it weren’t equally genuine and infectious. As they explain how Rodriguez became such a big star in South Africa (completely without his knowledge), there are many funny moments, from the various urban myths about Rodriguez’s demise (really a nonspoiler – he didn’t light himself on fire on stage, as many South Africans apparently believed) to the lengths the South African government went to censor his music (even scratching out the song “I Wonder” on each copy of the Rodriguez album “Cold Fact” it could get its hands on.)
I won’t spoil the ending of all this, so suffice it to say that by the time the very-much-alive Rodriguez and his admirers come together, Bendjelloul has earned every bit of the feel-good vibe it delivers. It’s enough to make even the most cynical viewer smile, so much that I didn’t even think until the next day after watching this for the second time about all the things Bendjelloul chose to leave out about Apartheid-era South Africa (details I really don’t need to go into here, either.)
But that wasn’t what he was going for here, instead interested in exploring a story that’s often hard to believe and always entertaining until it wraps up in a tidy 80 minutes or so. Bluray extras are truly scant on this first edition: A commentary by Bendjelloul and Rodriguez, a making of feature and a Q&A with the two of them at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Will Searching for Sugar Man win the Oscar? Up against predictably more serious fare (I’ve seen 5 Broken Cameras and The Invisible War – both very good), probably not, but if it did, it would be a victory for narrative storytelling in documentary features, which we can always use more of. Check out Searching for Sugar Man in whatever format you consume movies once they leave the theaters,and get ready for an amazing story very well told.