Review originally published March 20, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 SXSW Film Festival.
How many Bob Dylans might have existed out there in the world – just as talented and vital to their generation, but without the opportunity, acclaim or blind luck needed to leave a mark? Malik Bendjelloul’s effortlessly compelling "Searching for Sugar Man" suggests that the folk artist known simply as Rodriguez might have rivaled that legendary performer had the American marketplace taken to him similarly in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Alas, his two produced albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality,” failed to break through, and depending on whom you ask, the mystery man from Detroit eventually committed suicide on stage, though the means by which he did so differ depending on the story’s teller. What makes the loss of Rodriguez all the more bittersweet is that his music did find success, and then some, in Apartheid-era South Africa. He was a ready-made anti-establishment figure, and all the government could do to stifle his anthems was to scratch up every record of his they could get their hands on.
Where the singer’s legacy went from there is better left unspoiled by yours truly, though the increasing reach of the Internet would come to serve as a critical tool in shaping the story. (How novel it already is to see people taken aback by revelations that a mere glance at Google or Wikipedia would now reveal.) The interviews and accounts on hand span decades and continents, from cold urban landscapes to political hotbeds, and the extent of the participants’ passion for his music is palpable throughout, nearly verging on aggrandizement. What’s more is how the songs speak for themselves, dropped in against starkly animated backdrops, easily making the most convincing case for Rodriguez’ talent and his particular evocation of the era.
Bendjelloul does initially withhold vital information so as to keep the audience as much in the dark as the subjects themselves were, and while it’s a nakedly manipulative technique, it does ultimately reap an emotionally effective turn that critically redefines the documentary’s own purpose from elegy to celebration – enough so to forgive in part its neglect of questions regarding where all those South African royalties must have ended up, or the film’s disinterest in the greater scope and impact of folk music at the time.
As a fan-focused effort, though, and a ripping yarn in its own right, the appeal of "Searching for Sugar Man" is hard to deny as it harkens back to a bygone time when a humble, soft-spoken musician could become not just a success, but an honest-to-God legend whose soulful lyrics come to bear even more substantial cultural significance, and never even know it. A documentary about fandom and freedom, information and misinformation, fleeting fame and everlasting art, it tackles all of these qualities with remarkable ease and – of course – a great soundtrack.