Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Opens at the Charles Theater Aug. 24
In the first few moments of Searching for Sugar Man , the camera zips through mountains jutting out of the sea, each shot more crafted than the one preceding it. Its cinematography is so precise, so aware of itself, that we spent a couple seconds in confusion. Was this a narrative? We were fairly positive we agreed to see a documentary, but initially the camera work looked more Hollywood than anything else. Fortunately, the filmmaking team behind the film knew just what they were doing, never sacrificing the story for the sake of style.
Blessed with the rather incredible account of Rodriguez, the folk legend who tanked in the U.S. but rose to stardom in apartheid-era South Africa, the film beautifully explores his life and the lives he touched. After both of his albums failed to gain recognition, despite good reviews, the musician disappeared from the scene. Rumors of a dramatic suicide onstage became his legacy, but in reality he was living in Detroit and doing manual labor to make ends meet. And in the age before the internet, Rodriguez knew nothing of his fame overseas, of striking a chord with legions of young South Africans fighting against apartheid.
As the hero of the film, Rodriguez emerges as just the sort of spirit you wish all musical icons could embody. Untouched by fame, he lives a simple life in Detroit, trudging through the city with his guitar, dressed in all black like some sort of rock 'n' roll monk. The film stops to hear from co-workers and family members who describe his life before the discovery of his success abroad, and while they paint a picture of a man who worked toward social justice, it's almost shocking that this quiet, reserved father of three earned both the ire of officials and the admiration of youth in South Africa for his songs about sex, drugs, and fighting the establishment.
Searching for Sugar Man tells the sort of story that just might be impossible in this closely connected modern world, but we can continue to hope it's feasible. Hearing of one man's unwitting rise from failure to folk revolutionary will no doubt inspire, and the skill involved in its telling makes the film a highlight among this year's releases.