A story so incredible it has to be true. Or completely false. I can’t tell. Surely there’s no way that the world could have been duped into believing that 1970s folk artist Rodriguez really poured gasoline over himself on stage and set himself on fire in a brazen act of public suicide. Or is it true about the story that he shot himself– again, on stage– after singing a rather pertinent lyric, killing himself to the stunned surprise of the crowd. The real story is one of these. Or maybe it’s neither, that’s up for viewers to discover in Malik Bendjelloul’s captivating and enthralling documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. The less one knows about the circumstances surrounding the life and times of this Detroit musician the better as half the fun of this movie is in discovering him and his story. Bendjelloul has, without a doubt, made one of the year’s very finest film and something truly special.
Rodriguez, as the film explains to us, was an artist that emerged out of the impoverished streets of Detroit, Michigan, in the shadow of the likes of Bob Dylan. His two albums– 1970’s Cold Fact, and 1971’s Coming to Reality – fared rather dismally on the charts, but fared much better in South Africa, where his rebellious songs played out as the unofficial anthem of a nation’s youth held hostage to the ravages of Apartheid. To know any more of his story would be to ruin it and I beg any readers out there to go into Searching for Sugar Man as blind to the twists and turns of the narrative as possible.
As the “Sugar Man” of the title, Rodriguez’ music punctuates the soundtrack and for many like me whose knowledge of the man was a smidge below zero– even though some of his tracks have been included on movie soundtracks like the Heather Ledger/Abbie Cornish drama, Candy in 2006– it may just hit them like a freight train. I’m not much for crying during a song, but the man’s emotional bad luck anthem, “Cause”, had the tears running down my face. The voice, those lyrics – “they told me everybody’s gotta pay their dues/and I explained that I had overpaid them” – the musical arrangements. It’s all just so fabulous and I cherish this film for introducing them to me. More tears were shed by film’s end as the truth behind this man’s tragic life comes to light in greater detail.
Searching for Sugar Man is a powerful experience from beginning to end. Filmed in blissful steady, breezy style, and filled with interviews from subjects whose anecdotes about the singer make for a stunning collage. The film acts as a means for the message of this poet of the inner city poor and disenfranchised strugglers to reach a new audience and it comes at just the right time. As people find themselves at odds with governments and societies that has little time for them, his words speak volumes and Bendjelloul has crafted an exceptional documentary around them that ranks as a must see that I want to revisit again and again.
Searching for Sugar Man is released in Australia on October 4th
Director: Malik Bendjelloul