Documentary films are not exactly the kind of films that have a happy ending. They tend to invoke a sense of injustice fed on curiosity. One prime example is French documentary The Imposter, who recalls the tale of how a French conman managed to impersonate a missing teenager from Texas in 1997, fooling Government officials and members of the press. Documentary films that bring out the curious side to the filmgoer, as well as see them leaving the cinema with a smile, only comes once in a while, so thank God for a reclusive American folk musician.
Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary about Jesus ‘Sixto’ Rodriguez, a Detroit-based musician whose failure in breaking the US music scene in the 1970s withdrew him from the public eye, leading to urban myths of his death onstage after a gig. However, unknown to him, his music was insanely popular and successful in South Africa, with his debut album ‘Cold Fact’ becoming a cult record.
Armed with a lack of personal information and only his lyrics to guide them, the documentary follows Rodriguez superfan Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydon in their quest to find out more about the reclusive musician.
As the opening film for Sundance Film Festival 2012, this intriguing feature offers a grungy, Southern-style of filmmaking. Director Bendjelloul splices interviews with rare archive footage from fans, animation and mobile photography, making this a rare yet visionary treat for the senses.
Seeing the interviewees talk about this legendary albeit mysterious singer and how his music made them feel is insightful. There is this guy who touch people with his songs and yet no-one has heard of him. What is interesting is that even though their comments on Rodriguez’ initial failure are laced with only a touch of regret and disappointment, industry members don’t seem to have a reason behind it – leading to a possible failure on their part in not being able to do more.
This is a stark comparison to South Africa, where – thanks to the early stages of piracy – Rodriguez’s anti-establishment lyrics inspired citizens that it was okay to say ‘no’ during Apartheid. In a way, he gave a voice to those who didn’t have the courage to do anything before; to make a difference. The result? A truly uplifting outcome, which makes you think about what makes a fulfilling life.
Searching for Sugar Man is a sensitive yet creative documentary. Great for music and film fans alike. Warning: the less you know before watching the film, the better.