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Searching for Sugar Man

Posted by martinteller on February 17, 2013

This unassuming little doc, the first by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, follows the efforts of two South African music buffs trying to track down the story behind Rodriguez.  A Detroit folksinger from the early 70’s, Rodriguez never caught on in his home country, but somehow struck a chord with the South African audience, becoming a fixture in record collections and parties as ubiquitous as the Rolling Stones.  He vanished into obscurity — and possibly suicide — without knowing of his massive overseas popularity.  With only scant liner notes to work from, Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew try to unearth this obscure musician’s history.

I pride myself on being fairly knowledgeable about music.  I’m far, far out of touch with the music of today, but I’m pretty familiar with the music of the 70’s.  I had never heard of Rodriguez before this movie… but apparently no one else in America had, either.  He only recorded two albums.  He’s a singer/songwriter somewhat in the vein of Donovan, with a similar nasal twang, and lyrics that evoke Bob Dylan.   Rather second-rate Dylanisms, if you ask me, but no one’s asking me.  But the words aren’t terrible or anything and I quite like his music.

It’s a compelling story, especially how he came to be so popular in South Africa.  His songs aren’t exactly protest songs, but they point out societal ills, and this spoke to a country struggling against Apartheid.  Rodriguez spoke for them in a time when they couldn’t easily speak out for themselves.  I really wanted more of this sort of information.  The mystery of Rodriguez itself is intriguing, despite inaccuracies and missing detail (warning: link may be considered spoiler-ish) that makes the tale a bit less spectacular, but the broader context was the most interesting part to me.  I couldn’t help noticing that Rodriguez fans — at least the ones we could see in the film — are overwhelmingly white.  As in, I saw one black person among them.  Is there a reason for this racial divide?  Did Rodriguez cross the color barrier plaguing the entire nation, and why or why not?  Were the blacks of the country more into township jive?  I know I am, but that’s a different story.

Still, it’s an entertaining movie that’s easy to watch and has some fine moments.  Except for a couple of semi-cheesy animations, the style is elegant and restrained.  The film has caught an amazing amount of buzz, including an Oscar nomination.  I haven’t seen any of the other nominees yet, so I guess by default it’s the front-runner for me so far.  Rating: Good (73)


2 Responses to “Searching for Sugar Man”

  1. I’ve heard a lot of good things about this one. Looking forward to seeing it soon.

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