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Folking Legend: Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man (2012) – Blu-ray review

December 19, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

‘Searching’ is right. This is the music documentary as mythic quest, a celebration of fannish devotion and the mysteries of stardom.

Rodriguez, star of Malik Bendjelloul's documentary

Searching For Sugar Man
(Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)

Consider, when watching The X Factor, how fame has skewed – or, indeed, skewered – artistic integrity – and then marvel at the example of Rodriguez, the Detroit manual labourer with a gift for soulful, socially aware folk-pop. Great things were expected of him, but his albums tanked… or so his American handlers thought. Thousands of miles away, in South Africa, it was a very different story.

The tale that Searching For Sugar Man tells seems scarcely conceivable now, in the age of Twitter and the download, where an artist can promote himself globally within seconds, and where the kind of censorship that occurred in apartheid-riven South Africa (where records deemed to be subversive were literally scratched until they became unplayable). Yet forty years ago, it was possible for a musician to fade into obscurity in one country, and yet became a mysterious, iconic talisman in another. In the absence of Cold Fact (as the title of Rodriguez’s debut album put it), the myth spread, even down to stories that the singer had literally gone out in a blaze of glory via a mid-concert suicidal self-immolation.

The film came about because Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul was on the hunt for a great story to make a documentary about, and he got one. Several, in fact. On the one hand, there’s the example of how talent – even backed by producers and moguls who had worked with the Motown greats – can inexplicably fail if the circumstances don’t gel. On the other, in the right place and the right time, a guy can become bigger than Elvis and not even know it. And in between are the faithful, the fans who keep the fire alive, playing the songs, debating the lyrics and, eventually, setting up the websites that will bridge the generations.

Given this slightly schizophrenic set-up, Bendjelloul adopts a pleasantly laidback approach to filming, deploying everything from scuzzy home video to animated interludes to fill in the gaps in Rodriguez’s story. Better still, he concentrates on the cinematography, something so often overlooked in documentary – the visual contrast between the sun-kissed, breathtaking panoramas of Cape Town and the wintry, blue-collar neighbourhoods of Detroit, help to sell the mythic arc of the story.

And ‘mythic’ it is. There’s certainly realism in the picture that emerges is a damning indictment of music as business: the royalties from Rodriguez’s South African success simply disappear into somebody’s wallet and one record boss gets very shirty when even questioned about it. Mostly, however, it’s a celebration of music as pure expression. No wonder the South Africans, under the yoke of an oppressive regime, dug the plaintive poetry of Rodriguez’s lyrics, a fizzing mix of cryptic Dylan-isms and piercing directness.

And the more you learn about Rodriguez – a figure of seemingly depthless serenity – it becomes obvious that the reason he didn’t find conventional fame was the same as the reason he secured such unconventional, legendary status. He simply wasn’t interested in courting attention, letting the music speak for itself. No X Factor-style sob stories or quick fixes here; instead, the unravelling of Rodriguez’s story results not in a sentimental sob story but in something finer – pure, transcendent joy.

Searching For Sugar Man is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 27th December. Extras are limited to a half-hour documentary on how Malik Bendjelloul discovered the story, but to be honest you can source the best extra yourself by buying the soundtrack album. Trust me, you’ll want to hear these songs again.

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