In modern documentary, it’s easy enough to find films that make bold statements, proclamations, or arguments. I guess you could say, that in a way, I’m talking about the films that express ideas effectively ending in a period
. Climate change is bad. Community gardens are good. Ride a bike. Ditch your car. Eat vegetables. Skip the meat…you get the idea. Then there are the rare gems, those precious films that master the mysterious art of structuring a story around a question mark
. The payoff from these unforgettable tales that hover around a brilliant central question isn’t necessarily even finding the explicit answer to that question. Rather, it’s often about the journey itself, usually driven by human curiosity and inquiry, to discover some greater truth about our existence. I am thrilled to write that the wonderful new documentary Searching for Sugarman
embodies these qualities as well as anything I’ve seen on screen recently.
Watching Malik Bendjelloul’s
film this past weekend at the West End Cinema
in DC, I was reminded that it had been far-too-long since I had sat in a theater and found myself so pleasantly enraptured in the precious delight of watching people in search of the answers to simple questions in life. What are those questions? In the case of Searching for Sugarman
, on the surface, it seems straightforward enough. As we follow two South African music lovers enraptured by music that moved them (and hundreds of thousands of others) in their youth under Apartheid, we are drawn to wonder: who is
Sixto Rodriguez? And more importantly: what ever happened to
As it’s repeatedly stated throughout the film, the unlikely and borderline-surreal story and contrast behind Rodriguez’s rise to fame in South Africa (seemingly unbeknownst to him) and his day-to-day life in the poverty-stricken obscurity of Detroit’s concrete jungles, is fascinating beyond compare. The narrative mystery plays out scene-by-scene in quiet, but gripping detail, unfolding in ways that would make Sir Arthur Conan Doyle jealous. Searching for Sugarman
thus plays out as a careful study of process, offering the viewer the subtle, guilty pleasures a journalist or private detective might feel as she jumps from clue-to-clue on the hunt for a fine discovery. As if the audience is the Watson to Bendjelloul’s Sherlock, we feel as if we are actually tagging along for the journey with the filmmaker, sharing in his excitement as he wanders internationally on the prowl to uncover a great fable.
And if the film only followed the pathway to answering those questions, it would be strong enough to captivate audiences.
But what really pushes Searching for Sugarman
over the top is the way in which it touches on a range of far deeper questions about art, fame, culture and ultimately, our purpose in life. The film so elegantly reminds us that many moons ago (i.e. when my parents were in their 20s), before the days of Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and those confusing ‘Share This’ buttons, there still existed incredible methods for ideas and art to ‘go viral.’ In those days, the pathway for a book, a theory, a film, or in Rodriguez’s case…a song, to reach audiences outside of traditional distribution outlets, required an inspiring level of creativity, determination and courage on behalf of ordinary people committed to ensuring that great art see the light of day — particularly when government censorship threatens to silence free expression. Thus Sixto’s story serves as a reminder that no matter how much planning, market research, audience surveys, analytics and metrics to pre-determine success, sometimes the universe just operates on inexplicable cosmic properties and allows the cream to rise to the top. Bendjelloul’s editing helps the reinforce the sensation of the historical mashup, easing audiences’ arrival at the same connections created by South Africans decades ago. Juxtaposing archival footage and South African streetscapes with careful curation of Rodriguez’s songs leaves the universality of his music feeling eerily uncanny.
The success of Rodriguez’s music in South Africa emphasizes the post-modern gift and privilege to create new meaning and relevance through presenting art out of its original context. The power of reinterpretation could not be expressed here with greater resonance. Likewise, we’re reminded that we can never know the full impact of our actions, particularly our creative pursuits. Though Rodriguez is a man of few words on camera, clearly he has grown to appreciate the remarkable power of small acts leading to major legacy. Case in point: on the film’s website, Rodriguez remarks his own wonder at the fact that “today a fruit vendor in Tunisia can bring down a dictator.”
Calling Sixto Rodriguez ‘enigmatic’ is the understatement of the year. His lyrical poetry as expressed in his music, particularly as compared with his relative silence in on-camera interviews, and current ascetic and pauper’s lifestyle, makes for the kind of beautiful contrasts that only real life can dream-up as told in a fine documentary. It is a total testament to Bendjelloul’s craft as a filmmaker (especially with such an apparently low budget), to facilitate such an emotional and deep connection between audiences and this unique man, who says almost nothing as a talking head, and everything as a mysterious disembodied voice-on-vinyl. Sixto’s life story as portrayed in Searching for Sugarman
offers the important message that those who seek fame are rarely the most talented, and that the press and celebrity-producing machines may always be imperfect vessels for finding and promoting greatness in culture. Sixto is a reminder that there will always be people who take solace in the pure pleasure of making music for the sake of making music. And that while it may take some time (and a little bit of elbow grease) to marinate and find its way through the noise, audiences will always connect with art that is pure of soul.Sugarman’s
gift to me was its nudge to get me thinking more deliberately about the things I want to search for in my own life. Sixto, you deserve all my gratitude for that. And to Bendjelloul: your filmmaking reminded me that I may be ending too many of my own sentences with periods instead of question marks.
On that note…what film to watch next?
— Lance Kramer