We often overlook documentaries when it comes to choosing the family movie for the night. Maybe it’s a reaction to all those we were forced to “watch” in school (let’s be real; the lights go out, we nap), but there are definitely some documentaries out there that deserve to be seen. Not because these films are “important” or send a “good message” but because they are, like any classic movie, purely entertaining. Searching for Sugar Man is one of these films. It is charming, heartwarming, mysterious, and made all the better because it is one hundred percent true. If you’re looking to watch something a little different from your regular action or drama, this one is sure to fit the bill.
What’s it about? The title doesn’t give a whole lot away, especially if you’re from anywhere other than South Africa. It focuses on the career of Rodriguez, a man from Detroit who, in the 1970s, tried to make it as a musician. He wrote lyrics of pure poetry, sang with a captivating voice, and had an air of charismatic simplicity. Have you ever heard of him? I sure hadn’t. The problem was, America never really caught on. He was good, very good, he just wasn’t popular – except in South Africa. There his music spread like the common cold at camp. Because it was an era of censorship, however, and little information was getting in or out of the country, poor Rodriguez never knew of his popularity. He continued living the life of a nobody while on the next continent over he had a bigger fan base than Elvis Presley. Such a sad story, but so fascinating, eye-opening, unbelievable, enchanting…
The film follows a trail of clues as the interviewees try to track down what happened to this legend. In this way it’s a lot like a mystery film: there’s a clue and you get excited, or they follow a breakthrough lead after giving up all hope and you’re dying to find out if they will finally find the answer. The format successfully draws you in. One thing I will say, however, is that once the mystery is solved and your silent cheers are morphing into thoughts about the bathroom next door, the film keeps rolling for almost another hour. The story picks up again near the end so it’s worth sticking it out, but there is definitely a lag halfway through. Don’t give up, there’s another high point in the conclusion, but perhaps don’t be afraid to grab a snack after you feel the mystery has been solved.
Along with captivating interviews and a creative mixture of animation and live shots, Searching for Sugar Man has one heck of a soundtrack. Nearly all the music is, as would be expected, from one of Rodriguez’s albums, but they are perfectly placed and expertly chosen. If you did grow up in South Africa, you are bound to recognize them as classics. The film makes it clear that his records are hard to find (anywhere but South Africa) but hopefully the documentary has sparked a re-release of his music. It really is phenomenal.
Searching for Sugar Man is a wonderful film that demonstrates an unbelievable divide between complete anonymity in one place and overwhelming fame in another. Nowadays, feeling as globally connected as we do, it’s hard to believe that a man can walk the world with Beatles-equivalent fame and not even know it. This film is like a detective novel, a family photo album, a travel journal, and a Rolling Stones Magazine all mushed into one. It is extremely watchable, it is very enjoyable, and I have no trouble at all understanding how it won this year’s Oscar for best documentary. Try mixing up your film night a little and give this one a go. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.