MOVIE REVIEW: Bendjelloul hits a high note with ‘Searching for Sugar Man’

Searching for Sugar Man


4 stars

The career of Sixto Rodriguez began like thousands of other late 1960s singer-songwriters and presumably ended sadly like a handful of others. After releasing two critically acclaimed yet poor-selling albums, Rodriguez became crushingly despondent and -- depending on which version you choose to believe -- either shot himself or set himself on fire while on stage. He never knew his records would go on to fuel a political uprising halfway around the world where he was revered more than Elvis or the Beatles.

Unlike a lot of rock music from that particular era, Rodriguez's has aged well and doesn't sound at all dated. With his lilting, slightly nasal, low-register tenor, unorthodox chord structures and pointed lyrics, Rodriguez recalls a far more sophisticated, melodic and pop-savvy version of Bob Dylan. If he had been on the roster of a major label -- one with a much larger marketing budget -- he'd probably still be making records and would likely be a member in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

First-time director Malik Bendjelloul spends the first hour of the film going back and forth between Detroit and Cape Town, South Africa. The former is Rodriguez's hometown and where he was discovered and the latter the place his music caught on a decade after his career ended. Everyone interviewed speaks glowingly of his unique talent, his tragic demise and the many overwhelmingly bittersweet "what might have been" scenarios.

From the start, Bendjelloul crafts the film less as a traditional documentary and more like a mystery thriller. The production values are superb and the director often works in brief bits of animation when recreating past events or bridging together the interviews. Even the opening title sequence makes a strong impact with its superbly innovative use of text and credits.

Luckily for Bendjelloul, he had the enthusiastic input of Stephen Segerman, a Cape Town record store owner and probably Rodriguez's most visible if not his biggest fan. Beyond obsessive, Segerman was frustrated at the lack of background information available for Rodriguez, so in the early '90s, when the Internet was still in its embryonic stage, he created a website dedicated to finding out more about his mysterious idol.

Like many South Africans, Segerman's constant listening to of Rodriguez's albums -- particularly the first ("Cold Fact") -- propelled both a musical and political movement that became crucial to the ending of Apartheid rule in their country. In the eyes of the then-young South Africans, Rodriguez wasn't just a singer; he was a revolutionary trailblazer and de facto deity.

As emotionally wrenching and illuminatingly captivating as the narrative is in the first hour, it doesn't begin to hold a candle to what Bendjelloul has in store for the last act.

If you think this is something you'd like to see while also getting the highest possible emotional and intellectual impact, you really need to see it ASAP. This is not just because it's a phenomenal movie but moreso because the longer it's out there, the more likely you will have it spoiled if you become aware -- willingly or not -- of the beyond-huge third act twist.

It goes without saying that you shouldn't do a Google search on Rodriguez until after you see the film and if you run into someone who already has and they start talking about him or the movie, ask them immediately, but politely to stop.

It's unlikely that anyone is going to release a better documentary this year than "Searching for Sugar Man" and it will also be hard for any film to move and inspire you more. After watching this movie, you will exit the theater with a far higher opinion of humanity. (Sony Classics)