Top of the Docs #13 – Searching for Sugar Man: A Feel-Good Detective Documentary

Searching for Sugar Man ticks all the boxes for what you could ever want in a music documentary.

An interesting subject? Tick. A story unanswered that slowly unravels? Tick. A killer soundtrack? Tick. Despite being released only in 2012, it’s already being included in most, if not all, essential documentary lists. It swept up at the awards season almost a decade ago, rightfully winning the Oscar and BAFTA awards. Director Malik Bendjelloul was looking for stories to turn into TV pieces in Africa when he came across the story of Sixto Rodriguez, and was struck by the fact that he hit a gold mine.

Sixto Rodriguez was a Detroit-based musician who recorded two albums under his own name in the early 1970s. However, since both of these albums sold little to no copies, he decided to call it quits and carry on working in his production line profession. He bought a house in a government auction for $50 (where he still lives today) and carried on being a motivated local resident. Rodriguez even ran for public office a few times. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music started to gain significant airplay in countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and a few others. Searching for Sugar Man follows two South African fans in the 1990s who want to know what happened to their favourite musician who had been rumoured dead for a significant period. What follows is a heartening story about how meeting your idols can sometimes be a blessed thing for both parties.

(Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Set in two halves – the film raises questions and scenarios then quickly answers them in a satisfying fashion. The style of the film is spectacular, with Bendjelloul initially using Super 8 film to record the shots for the film incorporated with archive footage. He ran out of money for the final few shots and had to film the rest on an app called “8mm Vintage Camera.” His initial producer threatened to withdraw funds and Bendjelloul had to persuade Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning producer of Man on Wire, to come on board. Chinn’s contacts and experience then guided Searching for Sugar Man to its successful awards campaign, starting off with an opening at Sundance Film Festival.

There are two great messages to take away from this film. First, that in Rodriguez’s eyes you should never doubt your dreams or your talent, as recognition will come, it may just take time to get there. Secondly, for the fans who loved his music, that sometimes a conclusive ending can occur, and that legacy remains forever. With all this set to Rodriguez’s poetic music – the film will leave you changed after watching it.

(Featured Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)