Movie Review: “Searching For Sugar Man” – Uncovering The My(th)stery

Written by Matthew da Silva October 15, 2012

The artist known as Rodriguez was discovered on a foggy night, shrouded in an ethereal veil in the back corner of a Detroit watering hole. After his albums commercially flopped in the U.S., the veil that surrounded Rodriguez thickened, forcing him to drop music and move on to a job in construction in the industrial heavy city of Detroit. Little did he know that his music would go on to inspire a nation in revolt, leading some music journalists to play the part of Sherlock Holmes and unveil the mystery surrounding the man that unknowingly helped spawn a cultural revolution.

Across The Pond

The year is 1970, the place is South Africa, and apartheid is ravaging the nation. Blacks and whites alike oppose the heinous laws imposed on the nation, and both sides struggle against the militaristic, nearly totalitarian state of the nation. Supposedly around this time, a girlfriend from America came to visit her boyfriend, bringing a number of records, including one by folk artist Rodriguez. From here, the record spread like the common cold, invading every household with its anti-establishment, rebellious lyrics that helped lead the nation to a fight against its oppressive state.

Unlike other popular pop artists of the day, though, Rodriguez was a man with no backstory. His liner notes were sparse, providing no information on the man himself, save for the front cover’s picture of him. In the closed state of South Africa, it was nearly impossible to get into contact with the outside world, leaving fans of his music to ponder the mystery of their idol, a mythologized being whose story would not be expanded upon until the late 90’s.

Those Were Different Times

Unlike most music documentaries, unraveling the way a band or artist came to be and the stories behind their tunes, “Searching For Sugar Man” stands apart. Rodriguez’s story is unique, a story that is no longer possible in the age of the internet, yet at the same time a story that could not be told had there been no aid from digital communication. The spread of Rodriguez’s music in South Africa was a result of a deep connection with his message, a connection that brought people together, a connection that does not seem likely in the disposable, download and delete culture that surrounds us now.

A Tale Of Two Cities

Rodriguez’s music had a bleak quality to it, an influence from the self-described helpless city of Detroit. His music may have not caught on in Detroit due to this property, a city that simply wanted to hear good news in a place that perpetually lived in a sea of bad news. What they seemed to miss, though, was the sliver of hope that Rodriguez offered, a sliver of hope and rebelliousness that was acted upon in South Africa.

The film juxtaposes these two states, painting them both as a portrait of ongoing struggle, yet outlining the two very different roads that they took in pursuing their struggles. Where one sat idle in it’s boarded up, decaying city, the other took action and eventually broke free of their constraints, a story that is as important as the mystery man who aided the unshackling of the nation.

Finding Rodriguez

“Searching For Sugar Man” is a story that goes beyond music, touching on world issues and the way they can turn at the arrival of a record waiting for the needle to drop. Rodriguez should be an inspiration to all who see this film, a detective story on a myth whose tale will resonate regardless of music preference.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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