Searching for Sugar Man suggests a mystery to be solved. To Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s credit, an argument can be made that the documentary reflects his own journey of discovery as he learned about obscure Detroit folk musician Sixto Rodriguez.
In the ’70s, Rodriguez cut an album that went nowhere in America but later, unbeknownst to almost everyone, became huge in, of all places, South Africa, where it was embraced by opponents of apartheid.
The question of what happened to Rodriguez was answered nearly 15 years ago for his South African fan base, but Bendjelloul was in the position to tell the story to the rest of the world in heartwarming, inspiring and sometimes artistic fashion. He also strains to emphasize Rodriguez’ relevance, and leaves some stones unturned that could have easily been validated had his dedication to discovery been equal to his ambition.
That may come off as a harsh verdict in the wake of the network-news publicity blitz the film enjoyed upon its Stateside release. Searching for Sugar Man leaves the impression that Bendjelloul was pretty satisfied with the story presented to him by his South African contacts and decided early on that it was worth documenting at feature-length. A good documentary filmmaker has to have journalism skills, however, and Bendjelloul, a former child actor who became a producer for Swedish television, doesn’t display much aptitude in that department.
After starting out in Detroit, Bendjelloul quickly takes us to Cape Town, where record-store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman fills us in on the legend of Rodriguez from the South African perspective. His album Cold Fact was adopted by the anti-apartheid movement, its songs talismans of protest within South Africa’s increasingly closed society. South Africans may have had limited access to pop music, but according to the people Bendjelloul interviews, Cold Fact could be found in nearly every record collection. Famous artists might have been censored, but somehow people continued to obtain Rodriguez albums.
This would come as a surprise to Rodriguez years later, but Bendjelloul emphasizes this aspect of the story as if it were happening today, making it a surprise when the year of his actual comeback is revealed. Rodriguez’s musical redemption, mostly told though his daughters’ testimonies, is the main thrust of the film. Whether his talent is worthy of the current hype is questionable. Rodriguez sounds like any number of singer-songwriters of his time inspired by Bob Dylan. Bendjelloul includes recollections of genius from producers Rodriguez worked with, but most of the evidence he offers is sanctimonious hearsay.
Most conspicuously absent is the solution to the mystery of where the profits from the record’s sales went. Bendjelloul interviews a retired music industry executive who gets defensive when the subject is broached, but stops well short of following the money at the retail level. Instead, he fills space with animated portrayals of Rodriguez and juxtaposed cityscapes of bombed-out wintry Detroit and sunny South Africa. Searching for Sugar Man succeeds in the end because Rodriguez’s tale is great comeback story, but too often it feels like a 52-minute television doc padded out for the festival circuit.
Searching for Sugar Man
Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen Segerman, Regan Rodriguez, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, rated PG-13, 85 mins