Searching for Sugar Man

What it's about:

A documentary about a couple of South African fans who set off on a trans-Atlantic journey to discover what happened to their musical hero, Rodriguez, a 1970s American singer-songwriter who, though completely unknown in his native country, was a hugely successful in apartheid-era South Africa.

What we thought:

There's nothing particularly new about a great, "lost" 1970s musical artiste being discovered years after the fact, usually earning such hyperbolic praise as "better than Dylan!" or "The Beatles of the '70s!" along the way. Nick Drake, Big Star, Townes Van Zandt, Badfinger: The list goes on and on.

Singer-songwriter Rodriguez, could so easily fit into into that category, if it weren't for one small fact: Rodriguez was HUGE in the 1970s and he was in many ways more popular than even such monolithic counter-cultural icons as Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.

It's just a pity then that "Rodriguezmania" was localised to a country that was not only thousands of miles away from Rodriguez's native homeland but was one that was rightly shunned, even sanctioned off, by the rest of Western civilisation – a country so hopelessly backward that it took a quarter of a century more than the rest of the world for its citizens to gain access to so rudimentary a technology as television. The place, of course, was South Africa at at time when Apartheid's gruesome stranglehold on its people was at its crushing zenith.

What we have in Searching for Sugarman then, is not only a top-drawer music documentary that brilliantly plays out like a globe-trotting mystery adventure, but one that has a very special resonance for South African audiences. While it's true that most South Africans – or, at the very least, most older South Africans – will already be familiar with the revelations of Rodriguez's astonishing fate but, depending on their age, will gain a new-found appreciation for the man himself and/or an insightful look into South Africa at a time when the rest of the world was steeped in a counter-cultural revolution.               

One of the most illuminating parts of the first half of the film is a look at how Rodriguez and particularly his best-loved song, "I Wonder", incited ideas of anti-establishment revolution in the minds of white South African youth – and most especially young white South African musicians. Looking back at it now, it's hard to believe that it was this song over such renowned 60s anti-establishment masterpieces as "Gimme Shelter", "For What It's Worth" or "The Times They Are A Changing" that would compel South Africa's youth to rise up, but that really says something about just how big a figure Rodriguez was in South Africa at the time.

Like the best music doccies though, this fascinating aspect of its subject is only one of its many insights on everything from the cut-throat nature of the music business to the limits of information in a pre-Internet age (their attempts to trace Rodriguez's footsteps through his lyrics is too incredible to be made up, for example) to, ultimately, the man himself and his music.

There's no doubt that, like many cult musical figures, Rodriguez's abilities as a musician and songwriter are, at times, blown out of proportion - "Bob Dylan was mild to this guy" being a particularly laughable sentiment – but he was clearly a markedly above average singer-songwriter who should have fit right into the musical scene at the time. There was never any particular reason why he shouldn't have been as big as Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell or Al Stewart but instead of making millions, he vanished into total obscurity in the US.

Despite the potential spoilers in other reviews and in the film's marketing and in so many South Africans already knowing his story, I'm going to refrain from giving any specific details about Rodriguez's fate. The profoundly moving second half of the film and the rest of the story is for you to discover yourself, dear readers. I will say this though, because of the lasting powers of his music and revelations about the man himself, the film ends up on an extremely uplifting note, making Searching for Sugarman – despite some of its bleakness and apparent tragedy – one of the year's must-see feel-good films.

It's nice to see Ster Kinekor Nouveau devoting valuable space and time to documentaries at last, even music documentaries, but they have their work cut out for them trying to find a more moving, more insightful and just plain wonderful than Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugarman.    

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