Sundance Review: SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
You probably don't know who folk singer/songwriter Rodriguez is. Unless you're from South Africa, apparently. While Rodriguez's two 1970s albums were huge flops in the United States they somehow became major cultural touchstones in South Africa at the height of apartheid.
South African fans never knew much about Rodriguez, since the American press never bothered covering him. His mystique grew, and the one solid thing anybody seemed to know about Rodriguez was the fact that he had killed himself on stage, despondant over a career that never took off.
In the 90s a journalist and a music fan decided they wanted to find out more - to find out anything, really - about Rodriguez, and so they began a search into the life of the enigmatic singer. What they found blew them away, and rewrote everything they thought they knew about Rodriguez.
What did they find out? That would be spoiling it! Searching For Sugar Man (the title comes from one of Rodriguez's better songs) is a nicely constructed mystery, with an unexpected twist. The reveals are paced perfectly, and every time I thought I had a grip on what the real story was, something would surprise me*. It's a strange story, one that I couldn't believe I hadn't heard before - in fact I spent the first thirty minutes of the movie wondering whether this was some kind of an impish trick, an Exit Through The Gift Shop for the folkie scene.
The second half of the film raises some really interesting questions that I can't explore here without spoiling things. There's a lot about the nature of fame and what it means for us, as well as questions about the importance of recognition for artists. But the first half is filled with intriguing thoughts about relative popularity, with South Africans absolutely baffled that Rodriguez wasn't a superstar in America.
That mystery is pretty easy to solve since there are a ton of Rodriguez songs on the soundtrack; Rodriguez's songwriting is straight up Bob Dylan, as is many of his phrasings. His voice is good, with hints of Nick Drake and Donovan. His stuff is good, but it's not different enough from the wave of folk rock that had hit at the end of the 60s. By the time his first album, Cold Facts, came out Rodriguez' sound was probably pretty passe. It isn't helped by the fact that every single track is overproduced to death. I can see why hardcore folk rock fans would be into Rodriguez, but I do remain baffledas to why South Africa fell for him so hard.
It's also interesting to realize that Rodriguez couldn't be a mystery today; in the 70s there was no way for fans to seek out information about artists, but in the 21st century the ubiquity of the internet destroys mystique.
The film raises some questions it sort of forgets to answer, such as asking about the identities of the many songwriters on Rodriguez's albums. It also makes some pretty big claims about Rodriguez's importance to the battle against apartheid - essentially the film claims his music was the soundtrack to the revolution.
Rodriguez's name didn't help his American popularity; I guess rock music had its Latin quotient filled by Santana. The film touches on this aspect, but I can't help but feel that it's a big part of what held him back. And yet in South Africa, at the time the most openly racist state in the world, his race didn't matter. Or maybe his exotic Latino qualities (which aren't really identifiable in his music, just in his face) were what struck young white South Africans. I'm always fascinated by the ethnographic dividing lines in pop music, and Rodriguez wouldn't be held to any one side of them.
* Sad truth: even if the twist isn't spoiled for you, you'll probably figure it out. I saw Searching for Sugar Man very, very blind; had I known there was a twist I might have figured it out.