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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Searching For Sugar Man

23 December 12 words: Harry Wilding
A musician who had no idea he was famous? What a ridiculous script idea...oh, it's a documentary
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Rodriguez in Searching For Sugar Man

Searching For Sugar Man is a documentary about a rather unlikely and amazing story. Most documentaries are, admittedly, but this really – while not being up there with this year’s The Imposter – has a quite unbelievable premise.

The artist known as Rodriguez came onto the Detroit music scene in the late sixties and recorded his first album, Cold Fact, in 1970. Hailed by his producers as one of the best musicians ever and as an artist who made Bob Dylan ‘seem mild’, his future looked bright. However, the album, along with his second a year later, flopped. So much so, that no-one in America knew his name or his music. This was a surprise to the South Africans, for in their country Rodriguez is (and I quote) “bigger than Elvis.” So what happened to the man? The documentary, not this review, will reveal that – but as a film, is it any cop?

Malik Bendjelloul – the Swedish director, and former child star – handles his first feature film very competently. From a dramatic standpoint, it leaves us with twists, turns and reveals that any thriller would be proud of. The Making Of on the DVD extras was surprisingly interesting as well, showing Bendjelloul’s huge commitment to the project over three years. Having not been paid during the production, he had to use his own savings and it really became a labour of love. Due to these budget constraints, though – along with a lack of early Rodriguez footage - there is some great animation and newly created Super 8 style footage.

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The film is also an education in apartheid South Africa, of course, and touted as the reason Rodriguez’s music may have been so popular there. Aside for the mystery surrounding how it did arrive there, it apparently gave the liberal white, perhaps even just young white, population a voice and middle finger against the oppression and racist police state they had been born into. Many interviewees within the film are South African journalists and fans and are where much of the story’s momentum is derived from.

The film does not mention the reasonable success Rodriguez had in Australia in the mid to late-seventies, or the airplay he got in Zimbabwe and New Zealand. Whether this was bad research or purposefully left out to make the story more dramatic, it is not a hugely offensive omission. The point is that most of the world – and, more importantly, his own country – were ignorant of him and his music. The contrast in his popularity is shown most clearly in his iconic status in South Africa, so thus, we have a documentary. 

The music of Rodriguez, played throughout the documentary, is pretty impressive, obviously making his lack of success seem more baffling. Would he have been more successful if his name was Smith or Jones? Or perhaps his label didn’t promote him well enough? Who knows, but Searching For Sugar Man and the musician’s UK tour throughout November may well add a few album sales to the total.

DVD extra features also include the trailer and an interesting audio commentary with Rodriguez and Bendjelloul.

Searching For Sugar Man is released on DVD and Blu-Ray through STUDIOCANAL on the Thursday 27 December 2012.

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