‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is an enjoyable portrait of an unsung artist; just don’t go Googling beforehand
Searching for Sugar Man
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
One problem the modern narrative documentary faces in the time of instantaneous online information is that the various twists and turns they present may well already be known to a viewer beforehand, them having looked into basic details about the documentary’s subject prior to watching. Searching for Sugar Man has a prominent role for (much earlier days) of the internet in its story, but the tool now presents a problem for director Malik Bendjelloul. The film concerns exploring what happened to Rodriguez, a Detroit musician whose records tanked in America and whose profile was miniscule. In South Africa, however, his first album is viewed as having fuelled the underground music revolution that helped influence the country’s resistance to apartheid. Rodriguez reportedly sold more records there than Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones, but no one knew anything about the man, other than that he had killed himself in one of several mythologised ways.
Bendjelloul’s film concerns the search for how Rodriguez really died and any other concrete information about the man, a quest that reveals some quite extraordinary revelations. The internet issue is that, somewhat ironically, any online search for the “unknown” musician of the film’s focus can now immediately reveal entirely too much and spoil some of the surprises Searching for Sugar Man has to offer. The remainder of this review will delve into necessary spoiler territory regarding some problems with the documentary, which is still a generally good film that is well worth seeing. Like the music of Rodriguez, it is a work best discovered and viewed first-hand without the prior knowledge most pieces about it and search engines unfortunately give away.