Searching for Sugar Man
- Director: Malik Bendjelloul
- Genre: Documentary
- Details: Sweden/TBC (TBC)
Stop reading this review right now. This isn't a cute way to get noticed 'now this asshole is telling us not to read his reviews'this is an honest attempt to get you to enjoy this documentary and the best way is to know nothing - NOTHING! - about it. People talk about The Dark Knight Rises spoilers, but knowing anything about this wonderful documentary would diminish its power. Why are you still reading? Stop. Just go see it. Then you can come back and read.
Have you seen it? Okay. Read on…
I wouldn't be a muso; I'd know my Stones from my Family Stone but hand on heart I never heard of Rodriquez and after watching this I'm a bit embarrassed by that. But no one seems to know what happened to him. The liner notes of a reissue of one of his albums called out for any information on him. Now that's mystique. A singer-songwriter from the early seventies, Rodriguez released two critically acclaimed albums - Cold Fact and Coming From Reality - that didn't sell and then, at a gig, he either lit himself on fire or shot himself in the head. A tragic end to what should have been a glorious career. But then his two albums made it to South Africa (legend has it a girlfriend brought a tape with her when she came to visit and ended up introducing Rodriguez's music to the country) where they outsell The Stones.
So what's the music like? Director Bendjelloull builds it up 'Beautiful' this, 'Genius' that, 'Wonderful' the other - and there's no way anything can live up to that. The songs are good, sometimes great: easy-listening protest songs in the vein of Bob Dylan meets Cat Stevens meets Bryan MacLean. There's a bit of Donovan in there as well. Nick Drake too. To help them on their way Bendjelloull sets the music to animated sequences of a depressed Detroit skyline, where Rodriguez lived, and snowbound backstreets.
But he oversold the material somewhat. He's not on his own: journalists in South Africa, where Rodriguez's lyrics seemed to echo the plight of Apartheid (where the government scratched songs on every vinyl pressing), dissect his lyrics ad infinitum in a quest to find out more about him. But it's all driven by love. When Bendjelloull tracks down Sussex Records owner Clarence Avant he puts him on the spot: if Rodriguez's records are selling in their hundreds of thousands in South Africa, where have the royalties gone?
With so little to go on, things can drag when there's a stream of talking heads who don't know a hell of a lot. Like all mysteries, when we do find out too much it reduces the aura considerably (Smile is no longer rock's great lost album; Brian Wilson released it in 2004. What was that Space Jockey in Alien? Watch Prometheus). Ditto here. The more Bendjelloul investigates and interviews the more is stripped away from Rodriguez's mystique but that's a necessary evil if it is to bring the man's music to a wider audience.
This would make a great movie: putting aside the bittersweet story, like a film's structure, it’s a series of reversals and reveals and surprise twists that keep it chugging.
Review by Gavin Burke | 14:34 | Friday 27th July 2012 | Movie Review
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