Searching for Sugar Man

The less you know about the subject matter of this film before seeing it, the better it is on watching – so I’ll steer clear of spoilers here and say you should definitely avoid the trailer beforehand if you can – but check out the 2012 British music documentary Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul – on general release in the UK now. Astonishing, moving, uplifting, and basically slightly crazy story about a musician, Sixto Rodriguez, discovered by influential producers in late 60s in Detroit, and the impact of his music in apartheid South Africa.

Also wonderfully baffling and thought-provoking. Its critics suggest that its documentary technique is flawed – its view too myopic – but this is undoubtedly a primary strength: unforced and with the lightest of touches, probably one of the most interesting insights in to (in no particular order) the music industry, repressive government control and censorship in apartheid South Africa, being a ‘beneficiary’ of that apartheid South Africa and the possibilities of change, fame and the fame industry, the city of Detroit – then and now – plus tenacity, humility, fandom, artistry, myth-making, choice … and particularly powerful in its sidelong glance into the unlikeliness of what it was that actually slipped through the gaps to make alternative possibilities viable. If a little oblique, nonetheless a gift for anyone interested in the mechanics of memorialisation, particularly in SA.

Also (positively) reviewed here: Mark Kermode, IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes

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4 replies

  1. I didn’t understand how this documentary could be myopic and oblique. You probably can’t explain further without spoiling it. The other reviews I read were the same. It seems to be fascinating and I can’t wait to watch it. The idea to follow someone that had some importance in the past is the kind of exercise I like. Specially, when you use this investigation as a tool to approach history and offer an analysis. Maybe it is in this part that the documentary fails. Now I will have to check it! Thanks for this review, I loved the suggestion 😉

  2. Although overall I loved the documentary – beautiful music, photography that aided the story, and an inspiring story about a man who rejects ‘traditional’ ideas of music industry success.

    However, from the perspective of someone who is interested in stories about how people participate in protest, I was disappointed. I thought the fascinating bit of the story was the association between the music and anti-apartheid views, and thought that this could have been explained better, and questioned more. Rodriguez’s own commitment to social justice is clear through his lyrics and his own life story. I would have liked them to speak to people from the struggle, and the fact that they didn’t (show this) makes me think that they didn’t do enough research or that the answers they got weren’t the ones they wanted. For me, showing an apartheid ‘official’ copy of Rodriguez’s album with offending tracks scratched out (of itself fascinating) doesn’t (for me, at least) demonstrate much when the regime was banning so much they considered threatening.

  3. I loved the documentary for the music, the use of animation, and the inspiring figure of Rodriguez himself.

    However, it left me with so many questions about how we think about the ‘impact’ of cultural items (two record albums in this case).

    From memory (so I am prepared to be corrected), the documentary makers used evidence from talking heads speaking on the ubiquity of the album in SA ‘liberal’ white households, and on sales figures (also the subject of debate!!). I would have liked more people interviewed about this, people who did protest (and didn’t) given that there were claims of his impact as being another Dylan. I’d be interested in what others thought about this.

    Why weren’t people who were IN the struggle (eg the uni students pictured at a sit-in) asked about their memories of the album? I wondered if this was funding / lack of research or answers that didn’t fit the filmmakers’ agenda.

  4. Thanks so much for your comments 🙂
    And Nara – yes, the film does fall down in terms of documentary history. And I know, right? – I agree in terms of the evidence the film presents and its frustrated connections. But I suppose I feel, generously – perhaps too much so – and as you can see from my post – I do think that the film’s lack of objectivity claims (for want of better phrasing) ends up being a strength, precisely because it leaves all these questions/answers open; it asks you to *believe and not to know, and forces you to take that doubt away with you. It unravels a bit like a murder-mystery – self-consciously so – stranger than fiction. And plays up these fictional qualities. Which, of course, works so well because of Rodriguez himself, how absolutely enigmatic he is, and seems to choose to be. And because of the needs of the fans too, their self-belief, their need to construct and/or reconstruct this ‘story’. (I’m really on this fiction/fact element at the moment too because of the liveliness of the creative non-fiction literary debate in SAn literature at the moment – the pressure on ‘the real’ and how to express it. If it’s of interest, a lot of the issues are indicated in an article by Hedley Twidle, called ‘“In a Country where You couldn’t Make this Shit up”?: Literary Non‐Fiction in South Africa’ – the title sort of says it all! – in Safundi, 13:1-2, 5-28 (2012). And that’s a special issue of Safundi entitled ‘Beyond Rivalry: Literature/History, Fiction/Non-Fiction’).
    And with Sugar Man, there’s a kind of a strange exposure to ideology in action, maybe? – to the incomplete view, a comment on unbalance (we are watching a film – a constructed product for public consumption – about a musician as an unlikely figurehead in a struggle that he chooses not to comment on – about an era in which the people who were forming these connections and attachments didn’t have TV, didn’t have access to the conditions in which these products are forming, because of repressive government measures…). Here are people (talking heads) saying ‘these lyrics and this music opened our minds to the possibilities of thinking freely’!!, and the govt. censor one of the tracks because of a potential drugs reference – mad! So serious and yet so off-message.
    So for me, that is a powerful comment on the ways that cultural products come to be used in protest and says a lot about burdens – as in burdens of proof, burdens of responsibility. It conveyed the ‘backdrop’ness against the kind of centrality it clearly did have in people’s lives (I’m thinking concert). I felt it was also a conscious illustration that resistance was incomplete – wasn’t uniform – wasn’t polarised – and that anti-apartheid, non-conformist Afrikaans bands, like Big Sky, and to a certain extent Rodriguez, were heard in different ways for different people (let’s not forget Rodriguez’s popularity was also due in no small part to the fact that he asked the crucial question in that song that gets re-played a number of times, ‘When did you last have sex?’ – ha!). And radically imperfectly. So the talking heads element, for me, said something about individual vs a movement, conformity vs non-conformism… there is the disturbing demographic of the audience in the camera pan round the concert – and this is a, perhaps the, euphoric moment in the film.
    I still haven’t quite worked out whether this is despite itself or not, whether this is just my interpretation of a fundamental and potentially difficult lack in the film. And/or whether that matters. I mean, I think it does – but… well – I’m back to my position: questions of interpretation, national and international – it’s what you do with it that counts. Yes. Agreed.
    Wonder whether it is, as you say, because findings didn’t fit – and concerned that my interpretation allows for error, but do feel that this view, which is outside of a documentary lens of The struggle, means another kind of position emerges, sort of uncomfortable and unclear – a bit ambivalent. Be very interested to look at any other documentaries/films that look at this kind of gentle cracking of apartheid ideology in white South Africa, urban white South Africa particularly. In English, that is – but subtitled Afrikaans too. Any suggestions VERY gratefully received…

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