Judge Gordon Sullivan's waiting for the sequel: Searching for Artificial Sweetener Man.
"Sugarman, won't you hurry?"
You don't have to be from New Jersey to know Bruce Springsteen. He's practically an American institution, and has been for something like four decades—but it might not have turned out that way. His first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle) didn't do much business and he was mere inches from being dropped by his label. Luckily for him, he turned in Born to Run—a perfect album—and immediately entered the annals of history.
Sixto Rodriguez was not so lucky. Though he emerged at roughly the same time (the early 1970s), his first two albums similarly did little business despite mining the territory of Dylan-inspired folk-oriented rock. Unlike Springsteen, though, Rodriguez was dropped from his label and disappeared into obscurity—except, that is, for Australia and South Africa. There, his work was received by a fan base hungry for his brand of apocalyptic rock. South Africa—under the Apartheid regime—was especially keen on his music and his albums sold tens of thousands of copies. However, because Rodriguez had been dropped from his label, there were no promotional attempts to introduce him to the audience in South Africa. Thus, crazy stories about his death (usually by suicide) circulated. That is, until one journalist, a music fan and record store owner, set out to discover exactly how Rodriguez died. Searching for Sugar Man is the documentary that looks at this attempt to find Rodriguez.
Searching for Sugar Man has a pretty neat three-act structure. The first sketches the context for the release of Rodriguez's two albums, talking about their production and (limited) reception. We get to hear tracks from these albums and talk to some of the people behind them. The second act is really all about the albums' reception in South Africa. We learn about Apartheid's censorship (including physically scratching the tracks on records they didn't want played) and how Rodriguez's music spoke to the oppressed peoples. The third act, though is where the magic happens; the search yields something positive and we see all that love of Rodriguez rewarded.
As far as uplifting musical docs go, Searching for Sugar Man delivers. Rodriguez's music sounds like Bob Dylan and Neil Young had a baby produced by Van Morrison, and several of the songs that are played during Searching for Sugar Man could have (and maybe should have) been hits. That kind of bum luck gives Rodriguez immediate sympathy. Couple that with the adoration of a nation of people living under and oppressive regime, and you've got the perfect ingredients for a "rock 'n' roll changed my life" documentary recipe. Searching for Sugar Man lives up to that potential, offering human stories to accompany the rock 'n' roll narrative of the mysterious disappearance of a should-have-been. Those looking to be uplifted by a story of the importance music can play in the lives of ordinary people won't be disappointed.
Searching for Sugar Man gets a pretty strong DVD release as well. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer handles the material well. Contemporary interviews and transition footage look great, with solid detail and strong colors, while vintage footage looks as good as the source allows. The 5.1 audio track is even more impressive, with clear and well-balanced dialogue coupled with a strong dynamic range for the music.
Extras start with a commentary featuring director Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez himself. It's mostly Rodriguez being gnomic while Bendjelloul discusses production aspects. It was recorded before the film was released and became something of a hit on the art house circuit so we learn nothing of the film's afterlife or its effect on the musician. An 11-minute Q&A with the pair is also included, recorded after a screening of the film, as is a 30-minute making-of featurette.
I have two big problems with Searching for Sugar Man. The first is that the film starts out telling us that following the money is the way to find the story. Thus, we see the journalist following the money from South African record distributors to American record companies, which gets the interviewers to Clarence Avant, a noted Motown figure. Then, ultimately, it's not the money that gets them Rodriguez, but a website asking for info. The money angle is then essentially dropped, and though we learn that Rodriguez hasn't seen a dime from those South African sales, someone evidently has. Though I'm all for the uplifting, feel-good vibe of the film, Rodriguez's treatment left me feeling a bit angry at the labels and others who are to this day (as far as the documentary explains) exploiting his music for monetary gain. Given the state of the music industry, following the trail of money would likely have resulted in an even more compelling documentary.
The second problem is the film's chronology. First, it completely ignores Rodriguez's resurgence in Australia in the late seventies/early eighties, making him not quite as obscure as the film paints. More significantly, it's difficult to tell what's going on in the third act, once Rodriguez appears. The "comeback" we witness is from 1998, though many of the later interviews with Rodriguez and his family seem to be more contemporary. This lack of specific chronology makes the whole enterprise feel a bit sketchy, like the filmmakers have to exaggerate everything to sell the story of the return of the mysterious Rodriguez. For all I know it's all genuine, but the lack of transparency on this doc is suspect.
Music is one of the few universal parts of human life; perhaps one of the only that we can actually control (unlike birth and death). Searching for Sugar Man puts this trans-cultural fact front and center, crafting an uplifting narrative about the impact that music can have on peoples' lives. Though the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, fans of the power of music will appreciate Searching for Sugar Man. This solid DVD release—with an effective audiovisual presentation and some decent extras—makes a recommendation for purchase or rental quite easy.
The search is more important than what's found, but Searching for Sugar Man is not guilty.
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