Searching for Sugar Man | Movie review
A crowd-pleasing documentary on musician Rodriguez leaves plenty of questions.
“Sugar Man” is the nickname of Cape Town music-store owner Stephen Segerman, and also one of the best-loved songs by his idol: Rodriguez, a mysterious American singer who, Segerman tells us, committed suicide onstage. Record producers testify that Rodriguez was one of the greatest artists they ever worked with and express mystification that his songs never became as big as Dylan’s. But at least one of his records made its way to culturally repressed South Africa, where—through bootlegs and then legit copies—Rodriguez became a countercultural superstar, a symbol of rebellion against a repressive, racist government.
Director Malik Bendjelloul’s examination of pre-Internet fame—of a time when it was possible to be an icon in one country and unknown in another—is what’s most interesting about Searching for Sugar Man, the tricksiest nonfiction film since Exit Through the Gift Shop. The movie mainly tells its story from the perspective of the South Africans, who knew nothing of Rodriguez’s life; today, Google is fraught with perils for anyone who wants the film to unfold as designed. Withholding information, Bendjelloul sometimes strains: Rodriguez’s reportedly sizable following in Australia goes unmentioned, as though the troubadour’s success in South Africa was totally anomalous, and the doc fails to dig deep on the matter of where Rodriguez’s royalties went. (Motown titan Clarence Avant hems and haws in a way that makes him seem like the beneficiary—but that’s not evidence of anything.) Searching for Sugar Man is ultimately an ode to Rodriguez’s artistic modesty and the power of his music—a rousing crowd-pleaser that asks you to save questions for another film.