Review: Searching for Sugar Man – Malik Bendjelloul

Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary coated in mystery.

Knowing nothing about the film beforehand, rather than being a hindrance, actually compliments the atmosphere established in the exposition. That said, the woman sitting next to me in the cinema quite obviously knew a fair amount more – and she could barely stop her arms flapping and popcorn spilling in her excitement.

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An elusive man, wrapped in his own thick cloak of enigma, is at first represented through arty sketches and quirky cartoons. A man in a full-length coat is later filmed trudging across city streets, through snow-strewn grass rather than on the gritted pavement running parallel. His face is covered by his hat and the shadow of his collar.

This man is Sixto Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from Detroit. After failing to make an impression on the American music scene, he continued to live his life as a construction worker.

However, unbeknown to him, a stray tape recording of his songs made it overseas to South Africa in the luggage of an American tourist. He captivated South Africa with his gravely voice and political lyrics. His two albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, recorded in 1970 and 1971 respectively, sold over half a million records.

This is where the search begins – knowing nothing more of Rodriguez than his name, Stephen Segerman, a South African record shop manager, and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, a music journalist, struggle to track him down. The journey is shrouded with incessant rumour, broken leads and closed doors.

A fascinating and touching film, the search for Rodriguez goes beyond just finding the man. Placed in the wider context of enforced apartheid in South Africa, he had unknowingly become a voice against injustice, and a man who opened doors for others to begin their search for freedom.

 

Searching for Sugar Man, dir. Malik Bendjelloul (2012, Sweden/UK)

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