How Sweet The Sound, by David Bax
Making a documentary can’t be easy. Whittling a comprehensible feature length film out a gargantuan hunk of footage must be not only time-consuming but must also require a certain skill. That said, it remains disappointing how often these works feature a good story that is told in a generally artless way (take last year’s Knuckle, for example). It’s refreshing, then, to see a movie like Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, which manages to be both a good story and a good documentary.
Technically, the title is misleading. The film is actually about a search of sorts for an early 70’s singer/songwriter named Rodriguez, who wrote, among others, a song about a drug dealer called “Sugar Man.” Fans of rapper Nas will recognize that ditty from having been sampled in “You’re da Man” on 2001’s Stillmatic. Rodriguez’s two albums never caught on in the United States during his very short career. However, unbeknownst to him, he slowly became a big star in South Africa. Most of the titular searching is done by South African fans who know nothing about this man’s life other than fantastical rumors.
Bendjelloul teases out information about Rodriguez’s story layer by mysterious layer. While this method makes for an engaging experience, it also relies on a formula that soon comes to reveal itself. Over time, you find yourself wondering what information is being withheld in each segment so that you can be surprised with it in the next. Art is manipulative almost by definition but there’s a subtraction of charm when it’s so brazen about it as this. The blatant misdirection – followed by the big reveal – doesn’t keep the movie from being enjoyable but it also doesn’t let us forget how cheap the fun is.
Much more rich in texture (and perhaps the film’s ultimate salvation) is the music of Rodriguez. The man’s voice is nasal but smooth, otherworldly but comforting. Accompanying it is his guitar-playing, unadorned in the way only achievable by someone who is capable of theatrics but chooses to avoid them. He sings tales of life among the bottom feeders, drug addicts and criminals but more often than not he finds hope amidst the despair.
Rodriguez’s songs were written and recorded in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Bendjelloul uses some footage from that era but also peppers the telling of his subject’s early life with un-peopled, slowly tracking shots of modern day Detroit. These bold, snowbound, geometric compositions fill the Academy frame with a kind of singular intent and design one doesn’t often find in documentaries. That these shots exist is a testament to the director’s ambition.
After seeing the film, I hurried to the internet to find out more about this forgotten artist and his terrific music. Doing so was ultimately detrimental to my feelings about the movie. The more I learned about Rodriguez, the more I felt manipulated by Bendjelloul. Keeping that in mind, if you go see Searching for Sugar Man – and I suggest you do – try not to know too much about him beforehand.