Searching for Sugar Man
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. (2012, PG-13, 86 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 17, 2012
You should really stop reading this right now. Not kidding. It isn't that Searching for Sugar Man's plot developments are gotcha!-like, but this documentary does boast some bowl-you-over reveals best experienced blind. In his first feature, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul treks his camera to South Africa to investigate the legend of Rodriguez, a Seventies-era singer-songwriter long rumored dead. (One bit of apocrypha had him committing self-immolation onstage.) Rodriguez was a bust in his native America. A Detroit street poet in cool-cat shades, whose music – sampled generously here – recalls Donovan, Dylan, and Nick Drake, was received rapturously by critics but never caught on. Where it did catch on, somewhat improbably, was South Africa. Rodriguez’s music became anthemic for the anti-apartheid Voëlvry movement of the Afrikaans counterculture, and the musician, with his hazy origins and questionable demise, became an icon. The story of Rodriguez's stumble and – for the love of Pete, spoiler alert! – triumphant redemption is engrossing stuff, further enlivened by animated interstitials that keep the film from feeling too heavy with talking heads. The gladdening coda has continued, post film release, at numerous concerts, including a showcase at the 2012 South by Southwest Music Festival.
This review has been expanded since its original publication during the SXSW Film Festival 2012.