Starring: Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, Dennis Coffey
You may like this if you liked: Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010), Bobby Fischer against the World (Liz Garbus, 2011), Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)
In the 1970s Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodriguez had a short lived music career with two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful solo albums. He then disappeared into obscurity. However, in South Africa during the political repression and unrest his unique brand of heartbreakingly frank songs caught the imagination of the population and he became a best seller and musical icon. Despite all this no one actually knew who Rodriguez was, and so in the early 1990s two South African fans decide to find out the exact identity of this man whose songs had caught the imagination of an entire population. Many rumours said that he committed suicide; some said he shot himself on stage and some that he set himself on fire. What follows is a heart breaking and genuinely emotional story for all involved. However I am not going to tell you anymore, anyone who has seen it will know and those that haven’t should just watch it!
If Searching for Sugar Man was a fictional story it would quite rightly receive accusations of being outrageously clichéd and cheesy, but as a completely true story this adds genuine poignancy and emotion. Some of the plot developments and twists and turns provide such genuine sentiment that can only be achieved by a true story presented as a documentary. However, this is not just a film for those who appreciate a great story, but also those who appreciate great music. I personally, along with all of America it seems, had never heard of Rodriguez and when you hear the music for the first time it blows you away. Rodriguez’s gentle timeless protest folk with frank and honest lyrics that we can all relate to match anything Bob Dylan ever did. The fact it was by sheer chance that his music ever got to South Africain the first place adds even more poignancy to this story.
There is absolutely no doubt that this is a story that needs to be told and most definitely music that needs to be heard, and anyone who watches this will feel all the better for watching it. However this is definitely a stronger story than the way it is actually told, a lack of available footage for the director was always going to pose a problem and some parts do feel like filler that sometimes detracts from the power of the heartbreaking story presented. Even at 86 minutes at times Searching for Sugar Man feels a little too slow at times. However this is a minor criticism as the sheer power of the actual story makes well and truly up for any actual lack of on screen substance at times. This film is also proof that just like with Senna producing a documentary with real footage provides a much more genuinely emotional impact and much more engagement than a Hollywood style biopic. Of course the director still chooses how and what to show us, but there is no denying the genuine power where as a biopic always dangerously risks venturing towards cliché and melancholy.
Searching for Sugar Man is genuinely heartbreaking but also ultimately uplifting story that lovers of a great story or great music will appreciate alike. An unforgettable experience and strongly recommended.