Sunday 29 July 2012

Searching for Sugar Man review

Searching for Sugar Man (12A/PG-13, 86 mins)
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

This glorious music documentary begins in South Africa, where a record store owner called Sugar tells us about an album that was released there 40 years earlier by a little known American singer called Rodriguez.

We hear how he committed suicide by setting himself on fire on stage, so we head back to the late 60s and Rodriguez’s home city of Detroit to try to learn something of his story, of beautifully recreated smoky clubs, where he would sit with his back to the audience, his mystique and enigma building with each passing moment.

Rodriguez’s original recordings are used sparingly and often fittingly for what we’re seeing on screen, as the grimy streets of Detroit glide by. Though sometimes dangerously close to Dylan parody, the songs are mostly tuneful slices of troubadour folk and occasional pop, not a million miles from Cat Stevens.

As we hear from the producer who made his first album and others who worked with him, what comes through is the regret and astonishment that his music failed to find an audience. Yet people went wild for Rodriguez in South Africa, so we return there to pick up the story.

Amazingly, and completely unknown to anyone in the States, he had become a rebel icon, a figurehead for South African musicians singing out against apartheid in any way they could, which led to his songs being banned by the authorities.

But even with such a huge fan following, no one knew the first thing about Rodriguez, which adds an extra layer of intrigue. Even the suicide story is disputed, with some saying he shot himself on stage, others that he died of an overdose.

But with half a million record sales in South Africa, where did the money go? A former boss of Motown provides a tremendously prickly response to that question, as a South African “music detective” digs deeper and deeper into the mystery.

It would be unfair to reveal any more of where the story of Rodriguez goes from here, because this is a documentary that’s able to provide astonishing twists in the tale that would grace any thriller, as it builds up a portrait of a remarkable man.

Director Malik Bendjelloul has a great storyteller’s knack for getting information across at the perfect time for maximum impact, which means there are several moments when Searching for Sugar Man soars, achieving emotional peaks and troughs that are rare in documentary filmmaking or indeed any film. The result is a joyous triumph that’s instantly one of the year’s best docs.


  1. Thanks for your succinct but very insightful review. It is one of the best I have read. It shows that you don't need 1000 words to say what needs to be said if it comes from the heart.

  2. I'll be seeing it tomorrow in San Francisco! The more I read great insightful reviews like this one--the more excited I become! THANKS!