Searching for Sugar Man (review)

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Searching for Sugar Man green light

I’m “biast” (pro): no prior biases

I’m “biast” (con): no prior biases

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Musical Mystery

I feel like I’ve stepped into a parallel pop culture universe.

Imagine a world in which a Mexican-American singer-songwriter from Detroit with the soul of Bob Dylan and a voice that reels with rage and pain is huge. Bigger than the Beatles. Bigger than the Rolling Stones. He was the spirit of an entire generation decades ago, embodying their rebellion and their desire for a better world than the one they were given, and he remains a folk and artistic hero to this day.

This isn’t science fiction. It’s real. The “world” is South Africa, the rebellion was against apartheid, the singer-songwriter was Rodriguez… and how is it possible that I had never even heard about any of this till now? Honestly, I can’t remember the last time a film rocked my world and blew my mind like Searching for Sugar Man does.

This is a wholly extraordinary movie about a wholly extraordinary situation. It started when two South Africans — a rock journalist and a record-store owner — decided they wanted to find out what actually happened to one of their musical idols, because all sorts of outrageous rumors about a dramatic suicide had long been a part of the legend of Rodriguez in South Africa. But this was back in the early 1990s, before the Internet, before the world started getting connected up in ways that no one could have anticipated, and with ramifications none of us could have foreseen. These two rock PIs knew, somehow, that Rodriguez — or his music, at least — had arrived in South Africa via a vinyl record some chick had brought back to her boyfriend from America in the 1970s. (Rodriguez’s two albums, Coming from Reality [1970] and Cold Fact [1971], had utterly flopped in the U.S., but obviously he resonated with a few listeners.) That’s like science fiction, too: One person carried a cultural virus to an environment in which it could thrive. There were pirated copies; there were South Africa vinyl pressings, which sold half a million copies in a nation of then only 40 million people; but there was no info about the musician himself.

And then, almost literally as soon as the Internet made such a thing possible — in 1998 — the case got busted wide open…

I will not reveal what the two South African Rodriguez fans found when they made contact with the ordinary people of Detroit (the record companies had been worse than useless). I will tell you that Searching for Sugar Man — the title makes reference to one of Rodriguez’s most particularly excellent songs — is bursting with a thrilling sense of mystery and of artistic discovery. Rodriguez’s music fills the soundtrack of this completely magnificent documentary detective story, and if you don’t want to instantly devour all his music, then we have no basis for shared pop-culture understanding. (His albums are available on CD and via download. Links below. First thing I did after my screening was power up iTunes and get them into my library.)

First-time filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul — from Sweden, where Rodriguez has also enjoyed some modern fame — visits Detroit, too, where to this day, a strange mythology surrounds Rodriguez. One fellow, a bar rat from back in the day, recalls the musician as maybe something like a drifter. Promoters and producers who worked with some of Motown’s biggest names lament the loss of Rodriguez as an artistic force, and wonder why he didn’t strike a chord with American music fans. “Huge in South Africa” sounds like a jokey riff on “big in Japan,” but it’s more than just a joke: Rodriguez should have been as famous as Bob Dylan — it’s hard to listen to his furious yet melodic songs now and think otherwise — so why wasn’t he?

That’s way too enormous a topic for Bendjelloul to delve into, but it hangs over everything here… as does the wonderful feeling that, at last, Rodriguez has gotten the artistic vindication he should have gotten decades back.

Coming from Reality [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]

Cold Fact [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]

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