15-21 March 2013 #647

Searching for Sugar Man

Watch this documentary for its amazing content and the integrity of its subject matter as well as for its creativity
Sophia Pande

Making a documentary after most of the major events have already taken place far in the past is a difficult matter. Usually, the filmmaker is stuck with trying to reconstruct the story around interviews, but using people as ‘talking heads’ to tell a story is never very successful. It is not cinematic, occasionally very boring, and, most people do not come across well on film.

Searching for Sugar Man, this year’s winner in the ‘Best Documentary’ category at the 85th Academy Awards faced this very problem. The film reconstructs the search for an elusive musician called ‘Rodriguez’ who was discovered in the early 1970s singing in a smoky Detroit bar. The producers who found him were convinced they had found the next Bob Dylan, only better. Mysteriously, his first album hardly sold, the second one suffered a similar fate and his record label dropped him as a consequence. Sixto Rodriguez, a wildly talented musician with epic song-writing skills, disappeared off the face of the North American music scene.

Strangely, however, Rodriguez’s music reached Cape Town, South Africa, not long after. There, his first two records Cold Fact and Coming from Reality spread across the young white community like wild fire, speaking with its youthful lyrics about change and anti establishment-ism to a community censored by apartheid politics and yearning for something that would catalyse their growing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

As his popularity spread, so too did the mystery surrounding him. Rumours claimed that Rodriguez has self-immolated on stage, another claimed he had shot himself in the head after a disastrous performance. All of these stories had something in common: no one seemed to really know anything about this hallowed musician.

Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary is thus a kind of film version of a classic detective story as he sets out to interview two Cape Town fans who decided to track down their idol in the late 1990s. What follows is an extraordinary story about a singularly original musician and the power of his music.

As I mentioned, the film is a detective story at heart and to elaborate further would be to give away the mystery. However, there is much to say about the documentary regardless.

Filmed with stunning scenery traversing Cape Town, California, and Detroit, this documentary makes full use of all the tricks of the trade when faced with trying to reconstruct a story. Bendjelloul does not hesitate to use animation, and his reconstructed scenes are shot on grainy 8-millimetre film to evoke a certain era.

Sometimes Searching for Sugar Man is a bit slow, conclusions coming together much later in the film than in the viewer’s mind, but we are willing to sit through the film for the beauty of Rodriguez’s songs that are cleverly woven into the narrative thread and of course the desire to know what really happened.

Most of the time documentaries are difficult to make. It is easy to fall into the trap of sensationalising events, manipulating your key characters to simulate drama, and getting the essential bits from hours long interviews. Most of what we see today which is labelled documentary are often facile pieces of work, put together in a hodgepodge manner for maximum effect.

Searching for Sugar Man is an exception. Watch it for its amazing content and the integrity of its subject matter. It will change your notion of fame, whatever it is. Watch it too for its creativity. Rarely has a filmmaker made so much from being given so little to work with.

Searching for Sugar man directed by Malik Bendjelloul