The Search for Sugarman

It has been a long time since I reviewed a movie. It has been a long time since I’ve felt as compelled to as I do about the recent darling of Sundance: Searching for Sugarman.

It becomes very clear as the documentary unfolds that Sugarman, the eponymous and clandestine Sixto Rodriguez, was the lynchpin that dismantled the Apartheid autocracy in the ‘80s, as the vein of anti-establishment running deep in his bluesy folk music inspired a subculture of young, angry Afrikaaners somewhat akin to the punks of Camden, who stared furiously into the eyes of pink-cheeked oppression. As a South African youth, you’ll become very shifty when you realise you didn’t even know we had a Mexican-American messiah (fortunately amorous music-swapping with a pretty girl put Rodriguez’s debut Cold Fact in my playlist about a year ago. I can pretend to be in the know).

The film is framed by the search of two South African fans of the music for a glowing icon apparently lost in the dark, in a cusp-of-the-internet-revolution era. Motivated by rumours of his horrific demise (public gunshot suicides and self-immolation) the fans, a record store owner in Stephen Segerman and a music journalist in Craig Bartholomew Strydom, attempt to piece together the history of a man whom, it becomes increasingly and appallingly clear, is practically unknown in the rest of the world. A series of interviews ensues with a cast of talking heads vaguely Lynchian in their strange mix of cliché and oddity. The questions aimed at Clarence Avant, the record company owner that produced Cold Fact, stood out strikingly, as he becomes extremely uncomfortable, spouting a spontaneously intoxicated ramble of stereotypically down-and-out elderly African American aphorisms.

The confusion and jumble of stories focuses tightly at the film’s halfway mark, as an unexpected message from one of Rodriguez’s daughters ends the search for a dead man by turning up a live one. A slew of incredibly charming interviews with a family that personifies humility reveals much that the soft-spoken musician (and arguably most stylish man alive) won’t articulate himself. A particularly nice aspect of the film is the interviews with Rodriguez’s jokey, slightly overwhelmed and thoroughly working class friends. One in particular seemingly unwittingly has a poetic reverence when talking of the man who just got down to work, demolishing houses in below-the-wealth-margin Detroit. If not for permeation of Rodriguez’s grounded nature, he’d be a Hunter Thompson type (though ironically without the rock and roll flair) as he runs unknown for mayor of his town and earns a philosophy degree. An image of an ascetic, hard-working class poet sharpens as the film fervently sings the praise of an unsung hero.

The mechanics of the film mirror the duality of its story by being in sections classy, finessed, and aesthetically gorgeous, and then lapsing into bizarrely below average editing and colouring techniques, and allowing some slightly jarring plot-holes to promote a dramatic narrative. Fortunately these distractions are soon shrugged off by the contemplative soundtack of Rodriguez’s songs and the exceptional raveling of the story. The film is a paean to the inherent mystery in music being illuminated, and as such, the magnificence of its revelation is stirringly uplifting for the audience.

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