Back in the cloudy and distant waters of 2010, around the time that quasi-documentary Catfish was released, the integrity of documentary filmmaking was questioned – not for the first time, and certainly not the last.
Fast forward to 2012 and, given its fascination with folklore, and what some may even call tainted fantasy, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man has re-opened the inquiry for some critics. Such is the life cycle of documentary film, a genre that has always run a very temperamental line with reality, and one whose “truths” cynics suggest are often constructions, fabrications to mislead the viewer and manipulate story.
It’s a shame that so much work is disregarded as contrivance when, sometimes, it’s really just another form of narrative entertainment; embrace the idea that even the earnest of documentaries are unavoidably mediated, and take their stance with a pinch of salt. The debate can rage on forever, but surely it matters not if a) the story on display (whether fictitious, manipulated or not) is interesting b) the story is told in a compelling manner and c) none of it is malicious enough to be deemed as propaganda, all of which can be ascribed to Sugar Man.
That said, this is an experience that’s sweeter the less you know about its subject: little known (at least in the “mainstream” western world) Sixto/Jesus Rodriguez. In the 1970s, Rodriguez (as he is more simply referred) was a seemingly shy musician in the stylistic mold of Bob Dylan, whose two critically praised albums failed to sell in his native America, rendering him anonymous. However, unbeknownst to him, his records became idolized in South Africa, deemed worthy of a place alongside those of the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, even though nobody knew anything of the man behind them.
The film traces the quest of two passionate Rodriguez fans that, after reports of his suicide, set off to discover all they could about this undistinguished figure. We are thus invited to learn more about the man, his influence on South African music and the strange disparity between his home failures and oversea success – via a detour into the history of apartheid. What truly emerges, though, is a tale of the enchanting power, both spiritual and political, of music, and the sense of mythology that can be applied to its personalities.
Globetrotting from Detroit to Cape Town, everything is unpacked rather smoothly and eloquently by Bendjelloul and co, who use the majority of techniques from the documentary textbook: archive footage, some revealing talking head interviews, artful use of text; they even flirt with animation. Most effective, inevitably, is its use of music – a compilation of Rodriguez’ most poignant work, at times heartbreaking and sorrowful, at others beautiful, but always informing the motif, and progressing and complementing the story. It’s enough to make you want to sing along in your seat, if only you’d known the lyrics beforehand.
It’s right to question little of Sugar Man’s soul; after all, it’s doing sweet justice and giving recognition to a loveable, modest man that fame eluded. Instead, relax and let the joyous journey unfold because, by the end, its charms will leave you wondering why you’d ever want to chastise something so bohemian in the first place. Remember: it’s not manipulation, it’s just good storytelling.