How could Vincent Van Gogh, an artist of such originality and vision, sell almost no paintings during his lifetime? What about groundbreaking television series like Arrested Development and The Wire struggling to find an audience during their initial runs? The documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, tackles a similar conundrum. How could a songwriter as deft and poetic as Rodriguez be ignored by radio stations and overlooked by the public? Moreover, what happened to Rodriguez after his evocative albums failed to sell? Did he really commit suicide onstage?
Searching for Sugar Man is a fascinating detective story and Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul does a brilliant job of doling out clues as the mystery unfolds. The dark sunglasses and shadowy visage of Rodriguez match this beguiling documentary of two South African musicologists attempt to discover what happened to the man behind the soundtrack of their lives.
In an era of too much information, Rodriguez retains the most elusive trait – an air of wonder. The secrets revealed about his life are so satisfying, you must see this Sundance Audience Award winning film before too many of the twists are revealed (60 Minutes recently covered the story). Needless to say, Rodriguez remained a prophet without honor in his chilly hometown of Detroit. But the persistence of devoted fans like Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman overcomes the cloud hanging over a failed folk rock career. He combs over lyric sheets and publishing info looking for clues. Searching for Sugar Man celebrates the pull of music to animate our dreams and fuel our obsessions. The poignant songs of Rodriguez become an evocative commentary on his struggles.
Why didn’t he become a huge star? Because he didn’t need to. Rodriguez becomes an exemplar of character beyond billboard countdowns, proving a satisfying life can be found outside of fame and fortune.
Searching for Sugar Man is also about purpose and second chances. When is it too late to be discovered? Should we write, sing, or create only in order to make it big? No, we ought to sing because we were made to tell stories, to share each other’s pain, to bear each other’s burden. Searching for Sugar Man suggests that such artistry is sacramental, turning everyday experiences into transcendent truths. The finest music elevates our hardships to a universal level. We sing because we must, not because we’re expecting to get paid.
Rodriguez plays to an audience of one. This is why, in an age of endless self-promotion, Searching for Sugar Man deserves the widest audience possible. It is, quite simply, the most vibrant documentary of the year.
[Read more from Craig on his blog: Doc Hollywood]