A Detroit musician simple known as Rodriguez made and released two albums in 1970 and 1971. Though the documentary shows that Rodriguez was highly rated by some of the top producers in America at the time, his albums ‘Cold Fact’ and ‘Coming from Reality’ didn’t sell at all in the States. However, they found their way to Apartheid South Africa and soon Rodriguez became more popular there than Elvis.
However, there was no trace of Rodriguez except stories of his having killed himself on stage during the 1970s. A South African music journalist looking for a feature piece researched Rodriguez’s suicide and, along with a local Cape Town record store owner, discovered that the dead musician they knew only from his sunglass-wearing pictures was actually alive and well and still living in his native Detroit.
The film is cinematically adventurous being closer to a feature length quality movie than a fly on the wall documentary. There are some sequences that ably capture the moody winter decay of Detroit and the summer vibrancy of Cape Town. To fill in the lengthy gaps that exist in the visual story of Rodriguez, the film employs animation segments akin to the workmanship found in a Gorillaz video which increases the visual dynamic of the film. Great use is made of the small archive of photographs there are of Rodriguez during the period when he was a full time musician.
Searching for Sugar Man as an investigative journalistic film highlights the plight of the liberal white South Africans who opposed Apartheid. The film oscillates between Cape Town and Rodriguez’s story in Detroit showing the experiences of a life lived raising a family while being part of the working poor of Detroit. The film also brings up the issue of musicians being robbed of their royalties by the Music Industry.
Searching for Sugar Man takes its name from a Rodriguez’s song ‘Sugar Man’ and the film pours out his music for those familiar or uninitiated with his songs. One of the main features of the film is the sheer joy and exuberance that lifts from the screen as the Rodriguez and his fan base are united. Bendjelloul has created a well paced, intriguing narrative that ends in the crescendo of the returning long lost hero. Searching for Sugar Man is a genuinely rewarding film going experience which will allow anyone to realise the importance of music and its ability to be a ‘bridge over troubled water.’