movie film review | chris tookey

Searching for Sugar Man

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  Searching for Sugar Man Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
7.65 /10
Sixto Rodriguez,

Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul
Written by:

Released: 2012
Origin: Sweden/ GB
Colour: C
Length: 85

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Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Searching for Sugar Man tells a tale far too incredible to be true. But this most gripping of musical detective stories is, indeed, a documentary.

It tells the life story of a rock figure so insignificant that you’re very unlikely to have heard of him. But it’s riveting - and easily the most exhilarating music doc since Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002), the splendid tribute to the Funk Brothers, Tamla Motown’s in-house backing band.

Sixto Rodriguez was a singer-songwriter of Mexican-Native American descent, born in 1942. He sang in Detroit bars, but was so shy he kept his back to the audience.

He released two albums in 1970 and 1971, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. The records didn’t sell, and Rodriguez’s career failed to take off.

The story went that after one particularly humiliating gig he committed the most grotesque onstage suicide in rock history. Some claimed he dowsed himself in lighter fluid and set himself on fire, like a Tibetan monk. Others said he responded to another evening of audience apathy by putting a bullet in his head.

The irony is that he was utterly unaware that in South Africa he was hailed as a rock god. More famous there than Elvis or the Beatles, he became the voice of white revolt against apartheid. Curiously, no money from his albums nor news of his success reached Rodriguez.

The money trail ends abruptly at the door of one Clarence Avaunt, the belligerent and not terribly communicative gentleman who ran Sussex, the record company that fired Rodriguez a few years before it went bust in 1975.

But Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, inspired by a couple of Rodriguez’s most devoted South African fans, a rock journalist and a record-shop manager, isn’t interested in laying blame or exploring the murky side of the pop industry.

His aim is twofold: to find out what happened to Rodriguez, and to show how talented he was. He succeeds in both aims.

Rodriquez’s voice is strong and distinctive, like a less reedy James Taylor or a more robust Donovan, and his songs are soulful, melodic folk-rock with literate lyrics and a blue-collar protest edge that led some critics to call him the Hispanic Bob Dylan. For my money, he’s closer in feel to Bruce Springsteen, but that’s not a bad thing.

The movie sticks close to its structure as a musical detective story, and is coy about some intriguing aspects of Rodriguez, especially his love life, his degree in philosophy and his popularity in Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. But it tells such a gripping yarn that none of that truly matters.

Over a fast-paced, economical 85 minutes, the search for Rodriguez unfolds like a thriller you can’t put down.

I’m not going to spoil your enjoyment by telling you more. But the surprise twist in the tale helped Sugar Man win two prizes at the Sundance Festival, the World Cinema Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award.

The film is an inspiring celebration of the human spirit and one unjustly forgotten talent. It makes you wonder how many other stories like this are out there.

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