Review: Searching for Sugarman
|REVIEWS - DVD REVIEWS|
The story of a musician who sold few but influenced many...
Along with Bart Layton’s The Imposter, Searching For Sugarman has to be one of 2012’s most acclaimed documentary films. It tells the story of a Mexican-American singer-songwriter named Rodriguez, who recorded and released two albums in the early 1970s that failed to achieve any success on home soil. Unbeknownst to him however, he developed an adoring following in South Africa where his albums stood next to The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water in many people’s record collections.
It might seem hard to believe that an interesting, heart-warming and somewhat emotional documentary could be made about an unsuccessful musician from Detroit but all the incredible details of this particular story amount to just that. Director Malik Bendjelloul allows two South African fans to tell what is essentially their own story of Rodriguez and how after years of rumours of the musician’s death they decided to go on a hunt for the truth.
Beginning with a very cinematic shot of one of the main interviewees, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, driving his car along a beautiful stretch of South African coast, the film immediately sets out its intent; to tell a fascinating story in an informative and uniquely visual way. But it is not just the visuals that allow Rodriguez’s story to come alive, it is also the soundtrack. Without his music, there would be no film and the story exists only because of the special qualities of this music and how it inspired an entire generation of South Africans living under apartheid. The politically inflected psych-folk music of the only two albums Rodriguez ever released (Cold Fact and Coming From Reality) is infused in the film, giving life to the many individual memories of those who the songs have meant so much to. It is also the only archival material from the 1970s that is used in the movie as there is no video footage of Rodriguez since he was so poorly received in the US.
Utilising animation and reconstruction instead to visualise the stories of the contributors from both Detroit and Cape Town we get a clear sense of the many ways this wonderful musician was perceived. Interviews with labourers on the street in Detroit give one image of this mythical man as a lonesome wanderer, while his record producers and his label’s owner - Clarence Avant - remember him fondly as a musician; Avant claiming “If I had to name ten artists that I’ve ever been involved with, Rodriguez would be in the top five.”
Despite such apparent love for his work, Rodriguez sold next to nothing in America, and it seems promptly went back to work as a labourer. Or did he? Rumours of his apparent suicide spread throughout South Africa with many people believing he set fire to himself on stage. And so where Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and musicologist Craig Bartholomew-Strydem’s hunt led them is what the second half of the film documents. Much of the enjoyment of the film comes from what is a unique and captivating story, but there is so much more to be had from what follows and I shan’t take any of it away. Needless to say, the full emotional heft of the film comes in the latter half as the investigation reaches a conclusion.
2012 has proved to be a successful year for documentary film-making and if directors, writers and producers can continue to sniff out stories as good as this one and turn them into great looking and absorbing films then the future of the genre as a cinematic staple will be secured. Searching For Sugarman combines a wonderful story with great insight, amazing music and interesting visuals to produce the year’s best documentary.
The DVD comes with two insightful extras; a thirty minute ‘making of’ and a commentary track with director Malik Bendjelloul and another key figure. The story of the production of the film is interesting in itself as Bendjelloul, a Swedish first-time director, explains how he happened upon the story and the struggles he faced financing and ultimately producing the film. He comes across as very charismatic, informative and with a clear love of his subject matter and this alone makes the commentary track worth listening to. It would have been nice to have some full length versions of Rodriguez’s music on the DVD disc, but the official soundtrack and his two original albums are available to buy in the shops now.
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Release Date: 27th December 2012
Running Time: 83 mins approx.
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