It seems strange for a documentary about a mysterious Detroit musician to begin on the coast of South Africa, and then to immediately segue into a discussion regarding rumors of said artist's very graphic and public demise, but those two elements only serve to enhance the extraordinary surprises 'Searching For Sugar Man' has in store for its audience.
Hailing from first-time writer, director and editor Malik Bendjelloul, 'Searching For Sugar Man' has, at its core, an enthralling and very entertaining mystery about a '70s recording artist who went by the name Rodriguez. As it turns out, Rodriguez was discovered by two record producers while singing with his back to the audience in a run-down bar in the middle of downtown Detroit, and then went on to craft the critically lauded, but tragically undersold album 'Cold Fact' in 1969. After making another attempt at a studio album in the early-70s, the artist faded into obscurity. As luck would have it, what appeared to be the end of Rodriguez' musical career was just the beginning of his incredible story.
'Searching For Sugar Man' – whose title is derived from the Rodriguez track, 'Sugar Man' – could have easily been another biographical look at the fleetingness of fame and the way the recording industry historically has failed to recognize true talent, but, thankfully, Bendjelloul saw fit to tell the story as he'd first heard it, and to peel away at the many layers of mystery caused by decades worth of conjecture, rumor and more or less erroneous information. For Bendjelloul, the story begins in South Africa with a Rodriguez super fan by the name of Stephen Segerman, who had been bequeathed with the nickname "Sugar" for the way his last name sounds like 'Sugar Man' and his devotion to the songs of the artist known only as Rodriguez.
As Segerman points out, after 'Cold Fact' fell flat in the United States, selling a paltry sum of albums despite earning four Billboard stars and having a sound that was an eclectic mix of Bob Dylan and James Taylor, it found its way to South Africa while the country was dealing with the Apartheid era, and, as a result, essentially found itself cut off from the rest of the world. Legend has it that 'Cold Fact' became part of the country's anti-establishment movement after a bootleg copy spread amongst the young and disenfranchised like wildfire. Adding to the mystique of the album was the fact that so little about Rodriguez was known by anyone, and as a result, his legend grew, and then intensified as rumors began to swirl of the tragic end the artist met. One such story had him lighting himself on fire at the end of a performance, while another changed it to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
What's most remarkable about the documentary is how Bendjelloul first assembles the mystery and then proceeds to solve as entertainingly and satisfyingly as possible. But the genius of Bendjelloul's film lies in the relatively simple way it actually unfolds. After introducing Sergeman and enticing viewers with the not-so-pleasant rumors of Rodriguez' demise, 'Searching For Sugar Man' jumps into the way-back machine and delivers its story sequentially, starting with record producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, who recall their meetings with the secretive singer-songwriter as being nearly clandestine get-togethers on street corners in downtown Detroit.
More interviews follow and each one serves to enhance the questions surrounding Rodriguez, the surge in popularity he experienced in a country thousands of miles from Detroit and, most importantly, his fate as a musician and as a man. 'Searching For Sugar Man' begins building its most potent and effective thread in the overall narrative when Sergeman teams with a journalist by the name of Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, in the hope of finding some trace of the artist beyond what had carried his legend for so long. Bartholomew-Strydom and, for the purposes of the documentary, Bendjelloul himself, begin digging into case of the missing Rodriguez with the kind of no-stone-unturned diligence of a crafty P.I. from noir films of yesteryear.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the thread of finding out who Sixto Rodriguez is, and what happened to him is as imperative to the filmmaker as illustrating his importance to an anti-establishment movement in a country marked by supreme social unrest. The questions surrounding Rodriguez are the core of the film's narrative, which largely takes the burden of the examination of a country's complex and troubled history off the filmmaker's shoulders. The film seems to accept the notion that 'Cold Fact' and the follow-up album 'Coming From Reality' were anthemic records to a growing subculture almost too readily, and this surface-level depth comes close to undermining the rest of the tale, but, before that can happen, the narrative switches back once more to the easy-going grounded nature of Rodriguez himself, keeping 'Searching For Sugar Man' from becoming mired in the saccharine vibes of it's unexpectedly intricate second narrative.
But that is what makes this film so remarkable and entertaining: In taking a fairly straightforward approach to finding a man who thought the world had rejected him, Malik Bendjelloul discovers the answer to his question is not just finding 'Sugar Man'; it's in delivering the long-overdue acceptance Rodriguez never knew he'd earned.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Searching For Sugar Man' is a single Blu-ray disc in the standard keep case. The release clearly benefits from its critical acclaim, as well as the fact that it has been nominated for an Academy Award. Little flourishes, like the sleeve being double sided, so when upon opening the case, a collage of Rodriguez-related pictures and artwork greets you, help this release from Sony Pictures Classics stand out. The disc begins by showing a collection of previews before the top menu, but they can be skipped, if you so wish.
One of the benefits of today's high definition releases is that they can be very versatile in filming things like 'Searching For Sugar Man.' The film itself already has a fairly slick, well-produced look that likely has a great deal to do with how it's been received. Mr. Bendjelloul has taken considerable care in crafting a documentary that is both riveting as a narrative, and pleasant to look at without being too ostentatious.
For the most part, the film is merely a collection of talking-head interviews, which can sometimes bog down the sequence of events with repetitive static shots of people talking. To his credit, Benjelloul manages to incorporate several other elements into his film, which serve to break it up into more visually interesting notes. First of all, though, it should be noted that all of the interviews are handled quite well, and have been shot to include a great amount of fine detail, which is showcased thanks in large part to the 1080p AVC-encoded transfer this disc has received.
The subjects all look great; there is plenty of fine detail present in all of the on-camera interviews and contrast levels remain high throughout the film with bold, dark blacks and clean, crisp whites. Some of the exterior cinematography features the backdrop of downtown Detroit, and the fine detail here is excellent as well. There is a remarkable amount of texture present in both the foreground and the background in many of these segments, giving the film a well rounded, polished look that even extends to the handful of animated sequences that the director has put in to help liven up the proceedings.
If there were a drawback to the picture, it would be that, despite the interviews having a good amount of fine detail, the image does, on a few occasions tend to look a little flat. This may have been the result of some lighting or other cinematographic issues, but, thankfully, it isn't much of a detriment on what is otherwise a very fine looking documentary.
With its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, 'Searching For Sugar Man' not only highlights the career of Rodriguez through the film's main narrative, but it also breathes new life into his songs.
Naturally, with a documentary of this kind, the most important audio aspect would be whether or not the interviews can be heard properly and that nothing gets in the way of the information being properly disseminated. That is definitely not an issue on this disc's rather gorgeous sounding mix. All of the interviews are easy to understand and marked with incredible clarity that is pushed almost solely through the center channel speaker.
Of course, the real question is how do the songs of Rodriguez sound as they are presented in the film? Well, it's clear that Mr. Bendjelloul is aware his subject's talent, and the relative obscurity he's wallowed in for the past few decades. Thankfully, 'Searching For Sugar Man' has taken the time to present these songs in a manner they've likely never been heard before. The DTS-HD makes each song sound incredible. Every track takes over the sound system with a rich clarity that emanates from the front channel speakers and even into the rear speakers for an immersive experience that, if you're a fan of this kind of music, will likely have you wanting more.
It's an interesting mix of sound included on the disc. On one hand, there is a fairly basic set of talking heads, which really requires next to nothing in terms of bells and whistles, and the mix delivers it gloriously. On the other hand, this is a documentary about a recording artist, so there is some concern in how his skill will be represented. Thankfully, the Blu-ray understands this very well, and has delivered the songs of Rodriguez to a new audience in a remarkable way.
Documentaries about musicians are a dime a dozen these days; it seems like a new film involving The Rolling Stones or The Beatles has become an almost annual occurrence, lest we forget their significant and lasting impact on the world of popular music and rock 'n roll. More egregious yet is the notion of Morgan Spurlock following around One Direction and calling that a documentary. 'Searching For Sugar Man' is, thankfully, a completely different kind of story, however. It is a documentary driven by a very clever narrative: A compelling mystery with a truly soulful character at its center who had carried on for decades without knowing he'd actually become a superstar. That is the kind of storyline fantastic films are made of; this one just happens to be true. This is a fantastic disc that presents the film with very good picture and fantastic sound. Highly recommended.