It is a golden period for cinematic documentaries, but it is hard to think of one that has been better received over the last five years than Searching for Sugar Man (2012). It is a hard film to write about and avoid spoilers, but I will attempt do so. However if the review seems to be skimping on details, then that is my excuse as to why. I will put it right up front here though. Pretty much everyone should rush out and see this film.
The film focuses on American singer songwriter Rodriguez. He was an undeniable talent and released a couple of albums in the early 70s. Rodriguez found very little success in the States and was more or less totally unknown in his home country. His music found an audience elsewhere though. I was aware of him, as I knew a couple of people who had his albums and were really into his tunes. But more notably, the singer became a massive star in apartheid South Africa. That huge South African following is the focus of the film. More specifically it is the story of how in the late 90s, a couple of big Rodriguez fans attempted to discover the story of whatever happened to their favourite singer and work out how he died. Rumours swirled of an on-stage suicide and similar macabre ends for the icon. That is about all I will say about the story that the film brings as I do not want to give too much away. The film is very much a product of the time in which the events were taking place. Nowadays, if you wanted to know what had happened to a singer you were into, you would just google it. But in the late 90s it was not necessarily as easy as that, and I think that is a cool notion. Fifteen years ago if you were really into something, you had to work a whole lot harder to indulge that passion, which had its benefits (don’t get me wrong, so does having everything just a click away).
The film is excellently shot and whilst it is not a doco that relies on pretty imagery to wow you, there is no doubting that the filmmakers wisely invested time in photographing it all as nicely as possible. Design is another example of the attention to detail, with sharp titles on screen and creative flourishes such as drawings to show the passage of time all adding a level of sheen to the film. The film mixes up its documentary techniques nicely too. There are standard, but interesting talking head interviews, with people such as the producers of his albums, and then the more cinematic focus on the quest to find out more about Rodriguez. Searching for Sugar Man also examines the broader notions around the success of the singer, especially why he had so much resonance for the inhabitants of South Africa during apartheid. His records were some of the most famous in the entire country and took on a very anti-establishment role for South Africans. The two albums he released, especially “Cold Fact”, inspired people to rise up, at the very least in their own minds. Rodriguez comes across as a great character in the interviews with those who worked with him. An almost ethereal presence who touched all of those around him, their recollections will make you feel something for the singer songwriter on a deep level.
Searching for Sugar Man is one hell of a documentary and deserves all of the hype it has gotten. Emotional, surreal and touching, this portrait of a most incredible man is pretty close to perfect as far as docos go. No doubt many of you have already seen it, but if not then get on it.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter