Movie review: Searching for Sugar Man

By Peter Calder

8 comments
Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez. Photo / Supplied
Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez. Photo / Supplied

Two flaws hamper this engaging Swedish-made documentary about the "rediscovery" of an under-appreciated folk-rock musician of the early 70s.

The first - and this is a matter of opinion - is that it rather oversells the artist's entitlement to be regarded as belonging in the pantheon of the genre. On the evidence of the soundtrack, Detroit-born singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez was something less than a genius.

Looking like a cross between Geronimo and Jose Feliciano, and with a voice irresistibly reminiscent of the latter, he recorded two albums, Cold Fact (track 1, side 1, Sugar Man) and Coming From Reality, in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Then, the film alleges, he disappeared from view - it was rumoured he had immolated himself on stage - until the film-makers found him during filming in Dearborn, Michigan.

This would come as a surprise to his fans here and in Australia, where he performed in the late 70s (he even recorded a live album in Sydney in 1979, though it's a rarity), and to the members of Midnight Oil, whom he supported on a national tour in 1981.

So the film's second flaw is that it doesn't play fair, since it beefs up the mystery at the expense of the facts. It's a shame, really, since there's a good story to be told here about the particular passion for Rodriguez (he outsold Elvis and the Beatles) in apartheid-era South Africa, where this film begins.

Stockholm-based director Bendjelloul was in the country looking for items for a television arts show when he tuned in to the huge Rodriguez fan base. Plainly his plangent folky anthems (sample line: "my Estonian archangel came and got me wasted") had a profound effect on a generation of young whites chafing under the yoke of a police state. (One of the many matters the film fails to explain is why the authorities censored Rodriguez's rather anodyne songs; did Dylan's Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Only a Pawn in their Game never excite their interest?)

Regardless of its slightly contrived discovery of the alleged recluse, the film has some fun along the way, in particular with the artist's former studio head.

But it's hard to resist the conclusion that the finished film represents, more than anything else, a projection of the nostalgia both of the makers and the people they meet along the way.

Stars: 3.5/5
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Running time: 1hr 26 min
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: Pretends to be more interesting than it is

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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