Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man; documentary, Sweden/UK, 2012; D: Malik Bendjelloul, S: Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen Segerman, Dennis Coffey, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Clarence Avant, Eva Rodriguez

In the 70s, South Africa was isolated under sanctions during the Apartheid regime, and they longed for music outside. One of the most popular music artists was US singer Sixto Rodriguez, whose records were sold - either officially or by bootleg - in at last half a million copies. However, what they didn't know - is that Rodriguez actually stayed rather unknown in the US himself, since his records did not sell there. South African fans, including Stephen and reporter Craig, finally managed to track him down in '97 and were surprised that he is actually alive, since rumors circulated that he shot himself on stage. Rodriguez, who survived by accepting hard labor jobs, went on a sold out tour in South Africa in '98.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is one of the most positive documentary films seen in quite a while, and offers a fascinating, unbelievable and captivating theme based on a true story, the one how someone is "unknown in his homeland, yet big overseas". It chronicles the incredible life odyssey of music artist Sixto Rodriguez whose music went unnoticed in the US - but gathered a huge following in South Africa, where he was seen as popular as the Rolling Stones or Elvis. This is indeed a story that deserved to be put on film, one way or another, and here it is reconstructed as a investigative documentary, where fans from South Africa - Stephen Segerman and Craig Strydom - explain how, in a pre-Internet era in the 70s, 80s and 90s, they tried to find out any info about their idol, Rodriguez, but without luck. Director Malik Bendjelloul crafts the film in a simple, accessible and elegant way, but not without irony, either, since so many contradictions in this tale are obvious: on one hand, Rodriguez was a celebrity in South Africa, and yet, on the other, he lived a humble life in Detroit, where he worked ordinary hard labour jobs. It is as if he sent a frequency boomerang with his music, and it missed the US and went on and on, but came back from the most distant spot on the Earth where it struck ground and rewarded him. The archive footage of Rodriguez's concert in South Africa in '98 is astonishing, as if he got a "payback" for all the fame he missed out, and now received there. Likewise, he is a refreshingly positive, humble and kind person, a soul of a man, and his energy is so contagious it grips the whole film, just like his catchy song "I Wonder". Some criticism of the film (for instance, how it was omitted that Rodriguez was also popular in Australia, is off-topic and eventually suitable for a different film) is irrelevant, and thus the film works almost as a tale about a modern Phoenix.

Grade;+++

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