Review: Searching for Sugar Man (Bendjelloul, 2012)

Still from the movie Searching for Sugar Man

Warning: I apologize in advance for the roughness and confusion of this review. I wrote part of it right after I saw the film when I was so moved as to be rather incoherent. Nevertheless, I kept those parts in because it reflected the feeling of those moments, which are ultimately the best part of movie-watching.

God, I don’t know where to start. I am writing this review after having just finished watching the movie because I don’t want this feeling of excitement to fade. I feel as if I were a wind chime, and someone has taken a mallet and struck me on every rod.

I first heard about Searching for Sugar Man in the waitlist line for another film, listening in on two people who had just come from the movie and said it was the most amazing thing they’d ever seen at Sundance. That phrase actually gets bandied about quite often, but there was something in the voice of these women that made me believe it. (It ended up winning both the World Cinema Audience Award and the World Cinema Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2012 as well as an Oscar for Best Documentary.)

Sugar Man is a documentary about the unknown American musician Sixto Rodriguez whose music, unbeknownst to anyone in the U.S., became wildly popular in South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement.

A tumble of different emotions:

First: If you’ve ever made anything, taken a piece of your soul and flung it out into the darkness, you know how discouraging it can be to listen to the silence that comes flying back. I have to think, there are so many talented artists out there, fading into obscurity–out of neglect, perhaps, and our collective bad taste. If we’d only work hard enough to find them. I was listening to NPR the other day, and they featured this website called Forgotify. Apparently 20 percent of the songs on Spotify have never been listened to. That’s 4 million songs. Forgotify compiled a list of these songs and allows anyone to go to their website and play them. Its creators say, “We set out to give these neglected songs another way to reach your ear holes.”

Second: When I was younger, I didn’t think I had heroes the way other people did. I was interested in goodness and people who did good, but what was attractive to me about them was their humanness, what they could do despite having human failings like the rest of us. The word “hero” didn’t seem to fit. But now I realize I’ve had heroes all along–just never recognized them as such–people I admired and secretly emulated. Friends, my husband. Now Sixto Rodriguez?

Third: There’s a pure and real poetry in Detroit and gritty places like it. It’s something I can’t imagine in San Francisco. Should I move to Detroit? The scenes of a crumbling Motor City moved me.

A few days after viewing Sugar Man, I did some research on the film, and it turns out it’s not without its problems. (Don’t click on this link until after you watch the movie because it contains spoilers, but I strongly recommend the blog article.) These problems ultimately tempered my enthusiasm for the film (though not Rodriguez). Nevertheless, I still say go watch it.

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