Take, for example, Searching for Sugar Man. Currently up for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award and new to DVD, the doc introduces us to the saga of the one-named Rodriguez, a criminally unknown singer-songwriter from the early 1970s whose career sank into obscurity in his native United States, but whose influence proved monumental in, of all places, South Africa.
Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul interweaves wonderful interviews with Rodriguez’s former associates and several South African music industry types who try to piece together the little that is known about Rodriguez, from his poverty-stricken beginnings in Detroit to rumors of a violent suicide onstage: Did he put a gun to his head? Light himself on fire?
Despite having two albums fizzle in America, Rodriguez found superstardom in South Africa, albeit without his knowledge. Young Afrikaners opposed to apartheid rallied around his haunting music and pored over his Dylan-esque lyrics, a fandom that only grew and cemented when the government banned his recordings. Bigger than Elvis or the Rolling Stones, Rodriguez inspired a generation of South African musicians.
But let’s leave it there. The less you know about the movie, the better. I’m serious. Part of what makes Searching for Sugar Man so absorbing is that it draws the viewer so fully into the perspective of Rodriguez’s South African admirers desperate to know about their enigmatic hero. Don’t miss it. —Phil Bacharach