Searching for Sugar Man (Bendjelloul, 2012)

sugarmanMovies are not sports. Cinema is not a zero-sum game. When it comes to film, one can be a fan of both Duke and North Carolina. One can love the Red Sox and still adore the Yankees. One can be devoted to the Ravens and yet admire the excellence of the Patriots. There are many screens in the multiplex showing any year’s best movies.

I believe these propositions, so when I say that I didn’t want to hold it against Searching for Sugar Man that it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in the same year that my favorite film was Queen of Versailles, my fingers may be crossed, but I at least try to make it true.

I almost succeeded.

Warning: Beyond this point there are major plot spoilers.

There is a great story in the narrative about the resurgence in popularity of an obscure Detroit singer named alternately Sixto Rodriguez or just Rodriguez. There are actually several good stories here, any one of which might make for a great documentary. Faced with an abundance of choices, however, director Malik Bendjelloul opts for the safest: a manufactured mystery. In sublimating every other theme to it, he ends up repressing the film’s potential greatness for too long, never fully exploring the deeper questions that transcend the idle narrative curiosity imposed by the artifically constructed mystery.

That mystery–what happened to the singer whose albums were wildly popular in South Africa but whose career never took off in his native country–lies at the core of the film and its marketing but should really only have been treated by the documentary as the first act. That it is a mystery at all is dependent on a series of coincidences each more fascinating than the actual answer to the question the film hangs its hat on. South Africa was isolated from the world community during apartheid and so the international success went largely unnoticed at the time. Rodriguez’s career arc ended in the decade prior to the ascendancy of the Internet and reality television which would render the notion of an anonymous superstar an oxymoron. The singer himself appears to be one of those unique personalities content to do his work and not chase dreams of fame that so narrowly eluded him. It helps, too, that apparently nobody in South Africa has ever heard of Dearborn or knows that it is in Michigan.

Searching for Sugar Man is emotionally if not intellectually satisfying, because we are not used to good things happening to (seemingly) good people. We are not use to catching the rainbows that we chase. If it had spent a bit more time exploring why its happy ending was deferred for so long instead of simply telling the audience that it was strange and wondrous that it happened at all, the film may well have been a home run instead of a solid single.

As it is the film is filled with wonderful moments. Clarence Avant, apparently suspicious that whoever is interviewing him is trying to nail him for back royalties, explains the vagaries of success in the music business. Devotees of Rodriguez’s music paint a compelling emotional portrait of the importance music plays in the lives of the young (“the soundtrack of our lives”). A glimpse of white culture in South Africa under apartheid provides an interesting companion to last year’s Under African Skies. Still, I wish it had trusted its audience more–trusted it enough to believe it would be interested in complex, nuanced, layered stories instead of needing a pop-like, chorus-heavy narrative structure that is, in the final analysis, curiously antithetical to the music it celebrates.




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