Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Watch Searching for Sugar Man online in the UK: MUBI UK / Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Have you heard of Rodriguez?
A singer. American. Played guitar in back-street dumps in Detroit. Discovered by a producer in the 1970s. Released two albums. Both of them flopped. Last seen about 30 years ago when he killed himself on stage in the middle of a gig. Or torched himself alive. Or something.
No, us neither.
But it turns out that they have heard of him in South Africa. Over there, they love him to bits. He’s a full-on national hero – a guy whose songs inspired a generation to stand up for their rights. Like the lovechild of Bob Dylan and Nelson Mandela.
It’s no surprise that his music was so influential there. His lyrics, from the rebellious (“This system’s gonna fall soon / to an angry young tune / and that’s a concrete cold fact”) to the sad (“The sweetest kiss I ever got is the one I never tasted”) are sheer poetry, set to strong guitar hooks and catchy backing tracks. One poignant song tells of a guy who loses his job two weeks before Christmas – only for the same thing to happen to Rodriguez a year later.
What is a surprise is that it never caught on anywhere else. Ever.
It’s this bizarre juxtaposition of stardom and anonymity that Malik Bendjelloul explores in Searching for Sugarman – an enthralling journey to understand who the hell this dude was. “I always thought he was just some homeless guy,” laughs a former construction colleague back in America.
Bendjelloul faces one major problem in that he doesn’t have much footage of Rodriguez doing his thing. He dabbles with stylish animation, but gives up after the first (effective) attempt. Instead, we get gloomy, atmospheric shots of smoky bars accompanied by album excerpts. But the limited visuals are edited together with understated precision, only emphasising the stonking soundtrack; a five-star compilation of music that comes out of nowhere and grabs your ears by the balls.
So far, then, so decent. A compelling strange-but-true story of a talented musician.
But what happens next is what really hits the spot; a final twist in the tale that sees Searching for Sugar Man change key from sensational to inspirational – and, in light of recent events, tragic. How did Rodriguez really die? And was his family aware that he helped change the world?
Bendjelloul puts together the puzzle pieces with the confidence of a man who understands the charisma of this elusive icon. Determinedly continuing to shoot even on an iPhone when money ran out, the result is a dazzling documentary about an unsung hero who, like the Coen brothers’ Llewyn Davis, never cared about whom was listening, but, unlike the Coens’ creation, actually exists.
The BBC presents Searching for Sugar Man this week in memory of the director, who sadly passed away in May 2014; a fitting tribute to lights that go out too soon. You’re left with a beautiful testament to human spirit and artistic talent – and the sound of cool ringing in your ears.
Searching for Sugar Man is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, until 24th September 2019.
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