Unless you’re either a deep-cut aficionado or the kind of musical know-it-all who claims to have heard everything, you’ve probably never come across Rodriguez, the American musician who had a very short-lived career in the early 1970s, back when ‘fading into obscurity’ had permanent ramifications. But by the end of Searching For Sugar Man, the new documentary by Malik Bendjelloul, you’ll be a devoted fan.
In stark contrast to the indulgent rock-star poses and fly-on-the-wall bickering of many musical documentaries, Searching For Sugar Man immediately, and effectively, marks its own territory, as it’s not so much about the search for stardom, as it is about the search for a star.
You see, while Rodriguez’s career stalled in both the United States and the UK, he found a passionate following in South Africa, after a consignment of LPs took the apartheid-ridden nation by storm. Unbeknownst to the man himself, he became an icon on the other side of the world – a household name who was, reportedly, bigger than Elvis, and shared shelf space with Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles. Years later, a clutch of music fans decide to cleave through the web of rumour and mystery, and track down their hero.
And, spoiler alert, they find him.
Searching For Sugar Man is the kind of crowd-pleasing documentary that eschews doubt and cynicism in favour of infectious enthusiasm. After meticulously building the cult of Rodriguez over the first two acts of its chapter-like structure through fervent hyperbole, and littering the film with song cues from his small body of recorded music, the film invites the audience to drink the mellow, acoustic kool aid.
With a half-nasal speak-sing drawl that is a mid-point between Bob Dylan and James Taylor, Rodriguez sounds evocative and familiar, but his intimate performances (complete with suggestive, self-consciously ‘poetic’ lyrics) are often smothered by syrupy string sections and electric arrangements, producing equal parts pop and psychedelia. For a pair of lost classics, his two albums are remarkably, well, unremarkable.
And, indeed, once they do find Rodriguez, he turns out to be a humble, happy man, living with his endearing family in small town America. He’s content, and entirely unencumbered by any failed-rockstar bitterness. In fact, he seems rather baffled by the oddness of his own tall tale of unknown fame in a distant country.
Rodriguez is even so modest that he prefers not to be filmed, delegating to his beautiful, eloquent daughters for interviews about his post-performing life. When he does deign to be on camera, he speaks in a whisper, hidden behind hats, sunglasses and a fortuitously sympathetic shadow. In other words, he’s the documentary filmmaker’s worst nightmare: an ordinary guy.
Searching For Sugar Man is almost undone by this gentle vibe. Like Rodriguez’s songs, it is almost too satisfying, too charming for its own good. But, when laid alongside fame-hungry hopefuls, tragic has-beens and frazzled kooks, both his story and his music are refreshing to hear.
There is also plenty to unpack in the film’s various narrative threads, from the fascinating investigative trail that the searchers follow, chasing down record label owners, producers, and Detroit barflies, to the story’s exotically pre-digital flavour – with local cultures worshipping their own musical idols in defiance of Major Label dominance, and even fostering their own tradition of myth around their mysterious icon. Unfortunately, much of the tension and triumph that the film strives for is dissipated, partly by Rodriguez’s modesty, and partly because the search itself took place over a decade before the cameras started rolling.
Hard-to-satisfy hipsters will have their questions and their quibbles. “Why the tunnel vision?” They’ll ask, before pointing out that Rodriguez was just as, if not more popular in Australia, and that his back catalogue has enjoyed a recent rebirth as a treasure trove for sample-friendly hip-hop artists.
The thing is, they’ll always be searching. Everyone else, on the other hand, won’t care. Because Searching For Sugar Man gives them something they didn’t even know they were looking for: a new favourite musician. A fully-formed cult, free of the rock-doc trifecta of drink, drugs and tragedy, ready to be bought into. And, luckily for them, all they have to do is boot up iTunes.
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