Note: This review previously ran on September 9, 2012. The original opening date for this film in KC. As tends to happen with these indie style releases the film is only now, after this surely strategically timed 60 Minutes report opening in Kansas City.
Music has become disposable in today’s iPhone toting world. Singles rule the sales charts. Rarely do people purchase entire albums and give them a full listen. Music stores are dinosaurs of the retail past. The days of one band reaching an entire generation are also long gone as music genres have splintered off into genres and niches of genres and niches. Searching for Sugar Man almost makes the argument, incidentally, that music has always been a bit disposable. It tells the riveting story of Sixto Rodriguez or as he is more commonly known Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a musician from Detroit Michigan who has released a total of two albums. The first was 1970’s Cold Fact. It scored well with music critics and those in the industry. It was quickly followed a year later by Coming From Reality. Despite the critical and professional adulation neither album ever garnered more than “Six” albums sold according to some in the states. Cold Fact happened to find its way to Cape Town South Africa. Hitting during the height of apartheid the album was quickly censored by the government for its pro-people/anti authority stance with tracks like “This is Not a Song, it’s An Outburst (The Establishment Blues).” As anyone whose ever been young, filled with angst and has a cause to rally to, you look for an anthem. When a governmental body says you can’t have a certain one, well they might as well write a check to the artist whose seen their art censored. Cold Fact became the album of a generation in South Africa and their struggles when they feared jail time just for speaking out against apartheid. Of course this was prior to the time of the internet. Rodriguez became “the South African Elvis” but no one in the country knew anything about the man. This was an album that was in the country almost purely through some incidental fate. Being that so little was known about the man behind the music naturally legends started to form around the man sitting cross-legged on the cover of Cold Fact. The most chilling of which was that Rodriguez was dead. The stories varied, everything from drug overdoses to two different, yet vivid tales of suicide on stage. It’s at this point there is a catch to this story, one that is blown by the trailer for Searching for Sugar Man. For me it ruined one of the great surprises of the film. Though it is one if any research is done about the tale is quickly discovered prior to viewing. Though being this is a release from Sony Pictures Classics who seems to do a good job all their own of sweeping films under the rug, it might be easy to avoid being spoiled. This is one of those instances where I would strongly encourage one to avoid the trailer and walk into Searching for Sugar Man with as little pre knowledge as possible if any of this interests you thus far. The documentary is beautifully shot by cinematographer Camilla Skagerström. The story unfolds at times in a near cinematic and dramatic style with animation filling in for times when archival footage isn’t available. There is also a fair bit of footage that is hard to establish if it was shot and dirtied up to look archival or if its true archival footage. Director Malik Bendielloul, who as best as IMDB tells me is his first time behind the camera, does a fantastic job. The documentary has its fair share of talking heads but does well avoiding long, lingering, talking head exposition giving the viewer a piece of scenery or archival footage to look at while the story is told. Searching for Sugar Man covers all of the interesting pieces of this truly riveting tale that is so unreal it couldn’t be made up. Though there were a few loose ends, that not even those involved have answers for that linger. Viewed from a larger perspective this is also a tale of how the music industry fell apart to find itself in its current place of MP3’s ruling the day. If you’re a music fan you owe it to yourself to see Searching for Sugar Man. Rodriguez’s music and its message is still relevant today and holds up extremely well for its age. The story behind how it reached an unintended audience and impacted them is equally entertaining and as engaging as the man behind it all.
I give Searching for Sugar Man 4.5 “No Cover Charges until 8PM” out of 5
By John Coovert