DVD Review - Searching for Sugar Man

"Sugar Man" is a song by a musician in the 1970s. That musician is named Sixto Rodriguez. The title of Malik Bendjelloul's documentary suggests that he's lost or missing. For some people, Rodriguez was presumed dead. It might be a spoiler to reveal that Bendjelloul follows how Rodriguez was actually found to be alive and living in downtown Detroit. While Rodriguez is virtually unknown in the United States, he does have a huge following in Cape Town, South Africa. This movie tries to get at why. Why was he lost? Why was he unknown in America, his home, but well-known in Africa?

Yes, the movie finds Rodriguez physically but it doesn't find him psychologically. The filmmaker interviews Rodriguez. Yet, nothing substantial comes from it. Rodriguez's interview should have driven the movie, but it doesn't. Throughout the movie, we only hear Rodriguez talking maybe three times. One can argue that we instead hear Rodriguez's music, which does give us a window into this guy's soul, but it's not enough. The man might as well have been dead for as much as we get from him here.

Without digging into the man, the elements and issues presented are merely that. They're presented without exploration. There's no depth and ultimately no story, no story of substance with a real strong theme. The music he recorded in the 1970s was good, but so what? He hasn't recorded anything since. He didn't get paid for his record sales in South Africa. He lives a very modest life, doing hard labor and aging gracefully with the love of his family. He's nice but in the end boring.

I might have been more impressed with this if the concept hadn't been done several times recently and better. The concept or idea of a great musician being overlooked in the United States, despite his or her music being highly regarded, was done to better effect in 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (2007) by Raymond De Felitta. He wasn't a musician but an old man who developed a following or success that was totally unknown to him was also better handled in Winnebago Man (2010). Both those documentaries also delve deeper into understanding their subjects.

Bendjelloul doesn't get Rodriguez to talk about his process, how he made his music and why. We're left to extrapolate based on listening to the lyrics. We also see how the Afrikaners co-opted his music and used it for their own purposes, but learning what Rodriguez's own purposes were would have been nice. While I don't think Rodriguez is homophobic, he does use the term "faggot" in a way that made me uncomfortable, but his brief comments as well as comments from others provide a sense of the music culture. It's not as vivid as the sense of the music culture in Chico & Rita (2012).

Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature after winning an Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Searching for Sugar Man also earned the National Board of Review NBR Award for Best Documentary as well as the IDA Award for Best Feature and the Critics Choice Award for Best Documentary. Yet, the movie is only good for its music and not its narrative. I would recommend 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris or even The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006).

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, including drug reference.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 26 mins.


Popular Posts