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Searching for Sugar Man

2012-09-01 15:02
 
An illuminating, insightful and profoundly moving documentary about what happened to singer-songwriter Rodriguez – with special interest for South African viewers. Searching for Sugarman is one of this year's best and most uplifting films.
Searching for Sugarman
What it's about:

A documentary about a couple of South African fans who set off on a trans-Atlantic journey to discover what happened to their musical hero, Rodriguez, a 1970s American singer-songwriter who, though completely unknown in his native country, was a hugely successful in apartheid-era South Africa.

What we thought:

There's nothing particularly new about a great, "lost" 1970s musical artiste being discovered years after the fact, usually earning such hyperbolic praise as "better than Dylan!" or "The Beatles of the '70s!" along the way. Nick Drake, Big Star, Townes Van Zandt, Badfinger: The list goes on and on.

Singer-songwriter Rodriguez, could so easily fit into into that category, if it weren't for one small fact: Rodriguez was HUGE in the 1970s and he was in many ways more popular than even such monolithic counter-cultural icons as Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.

It's just a pity then that "Rodriguezmania" was localised to a country that was not only thousands of miles away from Rodriguez's native homeland but was one that was rightly shunned, even sanctioned off, by the rest of Western civilisation – a country so hopelessly backward that it took a quarter of a century more than the rest of the world for its citizens to gain access to so rudimentary a technology as television. The place, of course, was South Africa at at time when Apartheid's gruesome stranglehold on its people was at its crushing zenith.

What we have in Searching for Sugarman then, is not only a top-drawer music documentary that brilliantly plays out like a globe-trotting mystery adventure, but one that has a very special resonance for South African audiences. While it's true that most South Africans – or, at the very least, most older South Africans – will already be familiar with the revelations of Rodriguez's astonishing fate but, depending on their age, will gain a new-found appreciation for the man himself and/or an insightful look into South Africa at a time when the rest of the world was steeped in a counter-cultural revolution.               

One of the most illuminating parts of the first half of the film is a look at how Rodriguez and particularly his best-loved song, "I Wonder", incited ideas of anti-establishment revolution in the minds of white South African youth – and most especially young white South African musicians. Looking back at it now, it's hard to believe that it was this song over such renowned 60s anti-establishment masterpieces as "Gimme Shelter", "For What It's Worth" or "The Times They Are A Changing" that would compel South Africa's youth to rise up, but that really says something about just how big a figure Rodriguez was in South Africa at the time.

Like the best music doccies though, this fascinating aspect of its subject is only one of its many insights on everything from the cut-throat nature of the music business to the limits of information in a pre-Internet age (their attempts to trace Rodriguez's footsteps through his lyrics is too incredible to be made up, for example) to, ultimately, the man himself and his music.

There's no doubt that, like many cult musical figures, Rodriguez's abilities as a musician and songwriter are, at times, blown out of proportion - "Bob Dylan was mild to this guy" being a particularly laughable sentiment – but he was clearly a markedly above average singer-songwriter who should have fit right into the musical scene at the time. There was never any particular reason why he shouldn't have been as big as Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell or Al Stewart but instead of making millions, he vanished into total obscurity in the US.

Despite the potential spoilers in other reviews and in the film's marketing and in so many South Africans already knowing his story, I'm going to refrain from giving any specific details about Rodriguez's fate. The profoundly moving second half of the film and the rest of the story is for you to discover yourself, dear readers. I will say this though, because of the lasting powers of his music and revelations about the man himself, the film ends up on an extremely uplifting note, making Searching for Sugarman – despite some of its bleakness and apparent tragedy – one of the year's must-see feel-good films.

It's nice to see Ster Kinekor Nouveau devoting valuable space and time to documentaries at last, even music documentaries, but they have their work cut out for them trying to find a more moving, more insightful and just plain wonderful than Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugarman.    

Read more on:    rodriguez  |  music  |  movies
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(Comments may be edited or deleted at the Channel24 editors’ discretion)
Yvette Korff 9/2/2012 11:00 PM
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Loved it!
Sophia Karalis 9/3/2012 9:05 AM
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What a brilliant and inspiring movie!
Patrick 9/3/2012 11:07 AM
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Also loved it - brilliant!
Emil 9/3/2012 2:29 PM
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Well worth watching, and the blend between visuals and his music precise.
Marina 9/3/2012 5:22 PM
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Loved the movie, good to see South Africans with initiative. I wonder about the mother of his daughters, no mention made of her?!
Wozzy 9/4/2012 1:00 PM
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Tears still welling up in my eyes
Denise 9/5/2012 3:59 PM
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Brilliant, heartwarming and humbling, loved it!!
Poppy 9/7/2012 9:41 AM
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I have'nt watched the Movie but I can imagine that it was Superb because I have been a fan of Rodriguez as long as I can remember and definetly looking forward to see this gem in production.
Gillian 9/10/2012 2:11 PM
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Absolutely brilliant! What and incredible and humble man. Loved the movie, can easily watch it again!
Rafick 9/15/2012 12:29 PM
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Loved the doccie but your comment that at times his ability as a songwriter are blown out of proportion tells me you are clueless. Have you listened to cold fact- the album,I certainly hope you have before writing this review. Listen to the words and listen to the words of Bob Dylan. On what are you basing this downplaying of Rodriquez's ability?
Rafick 9/15/2012 12:31 PM
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Loved the doccie but your comment that at times his ability as a songwriter are blown out of proportion tells me you are clueless. Have you listened to cold fact- the album,I certainly hope you have before writing this review. Listen to the words and listen to the words of Bob Dylan. On what are you basing this downplaying of Rodriquez's ability?
leslie 10/3/2012 7:54 AM
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Is this available on DVD I would like to add it to my collection
Johan 10/25/2012 10:37 AM
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Brilliant!!!
mallamr 10/25/2012 12:13 PM
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I met man that told me about Rodriguez and listened to his music ....Fantastic works are incredible good and the beat goes on and on
mallamr 10/25/2012 12:13 PM
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I met man that told me about Rodriguez and listened to his music ....Fantastic works are incredible good and the beat goes on and on
Marley 1/17/2013 1:56 PM
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I got the DVD as a Christmas present and have watched three times. I was born in the 80's but I grew up with the songs "I Wonder" and "Sugarman". While watching this film I was in awe that the amount of time, effort and of course the never ending love for this man music it all took to get this result we got here. I hope this doccie wins the Ocscar
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