My father is a white South African who moved to the United States around 20 years ago. Because of him, I grew up listening to Sixto Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact on loop for most of my childhood. While most of the artist’s very adult metaphors were lost on me as a kid, I was nevertheless transfixed by his soothing voice and simple dream-like tunes. But despite our familiarity with his music, like most of his fans, my father and I had no idea who Sixto Rodriguez was, where he was from, or if he was even still alive. Needless to say, I was overjoyed when I learned that Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul was going to attempt to elucidate fact from fiction in Searching for Sugar Man by exploring the life of this illusive, enigmatic folk rock singer.
In his feature film debut, Bendjelloul had the unenviable task of first making his audience fall in love with his subject before diving into his narrative. In this, he absolutely succeeds; while I was already a convert coming into the theater, the movie certainly helped reaffirm my strong affection for Rodriguez. Smartly using the musician’s own calming tracks as his vehicle, Bendjelloul reminded me why I was so moved by his music in the first place.
The difficulty of getting moviegoers emotionally involved in the story is compounded by the director’s staunch determination to remain faithful to the ephemeral, transient personality of Rodriguez himself. Most of the movie has a dry, barren, concrete-jungle aesthetic that echoes the natural urban environment of its eponymous central character. But as the first notes of the film’s titular song “Sugar Man” begin to ring out over the stark visuals of winter in 70s Detroit, permeating the quiet of the city, the audience comes to understand why Rodriguez is such a remarkable artist. Bendjelloul uses this realization to drive the audience’s interest in learning his subject’s identity and whereabouts, while at the same time asking viewers through purposefully diminishing cinematography choices to respect and embrace Rodriguez’s desire for seclusion from the outside world.
The most commendable quality of Searching for Sugar Man is its objectivism. From Bendjelloul’s brief coverage of Apartheid-era South Africa to the questions he raises about who in America illicitly benefited from Sixto Rodriguez’s popularity in foreign countries, the only real bias the filmmaker seems to have is his fascination and love for his subject matter. By refraining from pointing fingers and presenting his narrative historically, he keeps his story clear and even-handed.
Searching for Sugar Man isn’t without its flaws. While I enjoyed the movie, I felt that it began to lose focus as the film entered its third act. For example, although I appreciate the fact that Bendjelloul doesn’t make any accusations as to who made money off of his success, I would have liked a bit more of a conclusory argument. The audience is meant to care about this man and his well-being, so the idea of anyone making money at his expense should make us angry. Unfortunately, Bendjelloul makes no assertions to this effect, and so the audience is left feeling ambivalent rather than outraged. This lack of commitment to a central message means that the moments of real emotional weight are almost entirely during archival footage that the director had little to do with.
Ultimately, Searching for Sugar Man is a good documentary about a great subject. I understand that there were a lot of speed bumps during production, but I can’t help feeling that a more adventurous, creative filmmaker would have produced a better end-product. Still, I am overjoyed that Searching for Sugar Man exists; it is a more-than-functional ode to Sixto Rodriguez. Even if the artist reportedly never wanted any recognition for his work, I’m glad he’s receiving this exposure. Seeing Rodriguez perform in the film’s source footage, I could tell instantly that that’s where he feels at home – drifting on his silver magic ships in front of an adoring audience.
Verdict: Movie Win