Review – Searching for Sugar Man
2012, 86 mins, 12A, Dir. Malik Bendjelloul, featuring Rodriguez, Clarence Avant
While over at a week-long event called Contagious East, a self-described ‘Bible Boot camp’ which taught parts of God’s word to hundreds of teenagers, I came across an outstanding documentary at a Cambridge Picture House called Searching for Sugar Man. Beautifully profound, but sadly little-seen, it tells the story of an American rock musician in the early 1970s called Rodriguez. His two folksy albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971) were totally unrecognised in his home country, but somehow found a massive (and unnoticed) following in the country of South Africa. His reflective, edge lyrics tapped in with the protest movement against apartheid and inspired hundreds of thousands of listeners. The film transports us back a few decades as we follow the search of two South Africans to find this elusive musician, presumed dead by fans of his music as rumours of suicide onstage are circulated. They work tirelessly in locating their idol, calling record labels in the USA and following lyrical hints in his songs; eventually, Rodriguez is found. One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is the music. The artist’s song Sugar Man is an otherwordly mix of folk guitar, ghostly wails and, within the mist of the instruments, an astonishing voice. Elsewhere, I Wonder is a provocative anthem for the young people of a very conservative nation. What’s perhaps even more remarkable is the aged Rodriguez’ humbleness and unaffected nature around his new-found fame. The director is never condescending, but you really get a sense that the man of the film is as gentle and good-natured as he is portrayed. On a technical level, we are treated to some beautiful shots of Detroit and Cape Town, and the well-edited concert sequence of ten thousand South Africans cheering on their hero is a moving sight. All in all, it’s a film celebrating the beauty of the age before the internet, a film that must be seen, a film that shows the power of music and one that will make every single audience member interested in Rodriguez and his songs; I was still humming Sugar Man long after I had left the cinema.