Musically invigorating and chockfull of mesmerizing discoveries. Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary on a genius musician that even most rock jocks have never heard of, that of Mexican-American singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez from Detroit. The producer who discovered Peter Frampton declares to this day that Rodriguez was more talented than Bob Dylan or Bob Marley. Two albums were produced, “Cold Fact” in 1970 and “Coming From Reality” in 1971, both flopped commercially. Testimonies suggested that the crushing blows of failure drove dissolute drifter Rodriguez to suicide. Yet dead or alive his music bootlegs found their way to Cape Town, South Africa which made Rodriguez godlier than the Rolling Stones and a catalyst for political revolution.
The story that unfolds is more jaw-dropping than anything you could find on a magazine tabloid program on their best hour. Rodriguez was talked about, written about, and celebrated in South Africa as a messenger against the Apartheid with or without intention (the archive footage has plenty of depth and proof). Galleries of interviews include record enthusiasts and producers from both America and abroad, all of them interpreting rumors down the pipeline about Rodriguez’ disappearance/suicide. One suicide rumor is so extreme it sounds like the martyrdom of Joan of Arc.
The early scenes of Detroit take on a visual texture comparable to David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” in color, as if it were a fallen city of slumdogs, a city of ghosts. Director Malik Bendjelloul, a veteran documentarian on rock, certainly has the apt to create weird vibes. Yet once we’re past this display of visual tone poem we get to the fascinating interviews, delving into the enigma of whom they describe as a vanished Music Genius.
Music tracks from his produced two albums are layered over the images, and in moments you connect the style to Dylan, in other moments connect it to Marley. His music is friggin’ fantastic, arguably bettering his icon contemporaries. You want to find whatever available YouTube video or Ebay item and listen to it the second you’re out of the theater.
This documentary hails superior over most documentaries, far over even the good ones. What is amazing is how the failure to embrace a musical genius of this magnitude in the 20th century led to his defeat, and yet out of it, the story of “Sugar Man” is strangely, bracingly inspirational. Unearthing the legend, we somehow discover the soul of a great man. We have an intimate experience with a legend made human to us, yet far greater than human.
Great films are around us everywhere and we have our whole lives to pick and choose which ones we think we need to see. But in this case, you really are going to miss out on something truly extraordinary if you don’t see this film. Step back and ponder, it really is a miracle of a story.
Note: “Sugar Man” was originally reviewed on July 26th, but has been re-released by Sony Pictures Classics on October 12th in light of the new cult fanfare interest in the film. I originally gave it 4.5 stars but am now upgrading to 5. I had docked it foolishly for one or two things the film left out, which in retrospect feel marginal and unimportant.
85 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
DOCUMENTARY / MUSICAL / INSPIRATIONAL LATE NIGHT
Film Cousins: “Paris, Texas” (1984); “Crumb” (1995); “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005); “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010).