If every Sundance film festival needs at least one documentary to remind white people about all the great music in the world they don’t know about, at least “Searching For Sugar Man” seems like 2012’s front-runner for the best one. A born crowd-pleaser whose central mystery begets a great triumph of grace and modesty, Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary about forgotten-before-he-was-known folk-pop singer Rodriguez is a hugely entertaining, emotionally touching, and musically revelatory experience.
Rodriguez was a Detroit singer-songwriter who recorded two albums in the early 1970s for the now-defunct Sussex record label, before evidently committing suicide during his last public performance. As the film debates the musician’s fate – one interviewee suggests he set himself on fire, another reports that he actually shot himself in the head – Bendjelloul tells the serpentine story of two South African men, one a journalist and one a huge Rodriguez fan, who banded together to figure out what happened to their mysterious hero. Evidently, although both of his albums flopped big time in the States, they made him a significant pop star in Cape Town, South Africa, where his working-class poetry awakened young Afrikans’ social awareness. But as the duo takes to the internet, employing every means possible to find out anything about the late icon, they uncover a remarkable piece of news that sends their investigation in an unexpected direction.
In addition to Rodriguez’ music, however, Bendjelloul composes a score for the film that operates on a different sort of theatrical level, that suggests grand conspiracies and murder mysteries moreso than “what happened to this guy, and who was he anyway?” But after an oddly melodramatic opening scene, the film settles down into examining Rodriguez, and exploring the past, present and future of his work in a way that’s deeply moving. Interview footage of his daughters reveals that even during his days of recording, he held down employment as a day laborer who would take on any job, no matter how difficult or unpleasant, and maintained a constant sense of modesty, both personally and financially. The portrait that emerges of him isn’t of some mercurial “artiste” who imploded after his records didn’t sell, but of a person who felt a need to explore himself creatively, had the talent to do so, and then possessed the grace to deal with his failure in a simple, pragmatic way. And all of those details build to a finale that doesn’t improbably overstate his importance or leave his accomplishments half-respected, lingering of bitterness, but one which peacefully observes how capable he was of dealing with potential success or failure, and how and where he found the success that eluded him during his recording days.