Searching For Sugar Man takes its subject seriously. An elusive folk singer from the past is revealed in this documentary that pits one’s knowledge of rock history against the truth.
Sugar Man would have you believe that Rodriguez was a rock icon from the 1970s who either just disappeared or maybe even offed himself on stage. One thing is clear as the film progresses: the viewer is in the possession of a film that flows with beautiful images, many of which have nothing to do with anything; shots of waves breaking on the beach, shots from vintage television newscasts of various crowd scenes, shots of dilapidated buildings that suggest the ravages of time.
The search for Rodriguez, a wonderful songwriter whose songs rival the best of his generation, eventually takes us to South Africa where Rod had his biggest following. The filmmakers know their subject, even referencing another less obscure singer-songwriter Shawn Phillips who happens to live in South Africa. The images and songs pour forth with such conviction that viewers schooled in rock history will scratch their heads trying to remember Rodriguez.
The thing is Rodriguez may be a figment of our collective imagination. The whole film might be a mockumentary but the story compels us to believe. Searching For Sugar Man unfolds in a realistic way unlike an arch movie like This Is Spinal Tap. And Sugar Man has an angle that stays with its audience, unlike the letdown mockumentary that was Catfish.
SFSM acts as a litmus test of your familiarity of music. If you were born after the ‘70s you probably don’t know whom Shawn Phillips or Emitt Rhodes are much less that Rodriguez may have existed. The movie has one shot of a press photo of Rodriguez that’s so well done you want to accept this film as fact. Even if Rodriguez never existed he damn well should have.
But here’s the twist: Sixto Diaz Rodriguez did really record in the 1970s and is a real, albeit obscure rocker. Rodriquez did become a cult figure in South Africa when his records finally were released there in the 1990s. Searching for Sugar Man walks a fine line that balances reality and fiction.
— Michael Bergeron