Searching for Sugar Man (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

sugarman 75The music alone would be enough to make the movie worth seeing, but this is a good story well told.


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I love movies, fictional or not, that tell stories of mythical characters. Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary that spends a great deal of time building up the legend of its focal subject. In the 1970s, a small-time musician named Rodriguez was discovered by some major record producers. We hear people describe finding him, playing music in a small bar in Detroit with his back to the room in a smoky corner. We see re-enactments that portray him as a silhouette, covered in shadows. Already, Rodriguez feels like a character from a fable.

A lot of the first act is dedicated to people who knew Rodriguez praising his work, comparing him favorably to singers like Bob Dylan. This section of the movie is helped greatly by the fact that we hear a lot of Rodriguez’s music, and it really is amazing. Rodriguez recorded two albums in the ’70s and neither one went anywhere in America. We are then told that he committed suicide on stage during a performance. If this character is not fascinating to you at this point, something is wrong.

Then the story shifts to South Africa, where we learn that a bootlegged copy of Rodriguez’s first album spread from person to person and became a phenomenon. There, Rodriguez was a huge star, heralded as an inspiration for those rebelling against apartheid. Several South African music aficionados say that, in their country, everyone knew Elvis, everyone knew The Beatles, and everyone knew Rodriguez. Because of South Africa’s controlled media at the time, no one from America knew about his success there; likewise, South Africans didn’t realize that he was not known throughout the rest of the world.

Several of these South African music fans decided to find out more about the man behind the legend, and their search became the focus of the film. Their methods include posting his picture on a milk carton online and looking deep into the lyrics of the songs themselves. There are some twists and turns, but ultimately, this is a story that you deserve to have told to you.

The best documentaries involve the viewer as much as, or more than, great works of fiction. Often, you wonder how you’ve managed to not hear this story before. In this case, you don’t know how this story could even exist. How could Rodriguez’s music not have been popular in the America of the ’70s? How could someone so unknown here become so known on the other side of the world? How could no one have realized such a discrepancy existed?

Immediately after seeing Searching for Sugarman, I ran out and bought both of Rodriguez’s albums. The music alone would be enough to make the movie worth seeing, but this is a good story well told. The film has excellent production values and is very well paced, which can be difficult for some documentaries with good content but messy assembly. The story is told in a way that is fascinating, compelling, and moving. This is one of the best films of the year. | Sean Lass

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