Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Many a good documentary has an inherently dramatic story or an important issue to expose to the public but only a mediocre filmmaker behind the camera. Superb docs up the ante—that’s when a smart, innovative director finds a great story or controversial cause and seizes the opportunity to create a truly memorable film.
The Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul may not turn out to be a great new doc auteur but he certainly made a splashy debut with Searching for Sugar Man. When the film premiered at the 2012 Sundance festival, audiences, critics and distributors were all receptive to Bendjelloul’s astonishing tale of a Mexican-American Bob Dylan, who disappeared without a trace in the early ‘70s only to reemerge in quasi-spectral form as a radical folk singing presence in then-Apartheid controlled South Africa. At Sundance, the film garnered the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize in the prestigious World Cinema category. Sony Picture Classics made it the first film acquired at the festival.
It’s immediately clear that Bendjelloul knows how to tell a story. We’re introduced to the mystery of Rodriquez straight away. A funny South African record seller, “Sugar” Segerman, charmingly recalls how important Rodriquez’s folk-rock album Cold Fact was for him and other white liberal youths growing up during the worst era of Apartheid. Segerman and his friends all assumed that Rodriquez was a super-star in America, like Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan.
Then, Bendjelloul takes us to America, where record producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore talk in hushed tones about encountering Rodriquez in a foggy bar near the river in Detroit in the late ‘60s. They found a taciturn character, who rarely spoke about himself, and seemed to live for his music alone. Intrigued, they decided to work with Rodriquez and the result, heard to great effect throughout the film, is Cold Fact.
Having established the tone, Bendjelloul moves the tale back and forth from South Africa to America, gradually showing how the myth of Rodriquez, with his poetic Dylanesque lyrics advocating a free society, grew in a South African state suffering under a huge international boycott and massive censorship. It eventually became clear to his adoring South African fans that Rodriquez wasn’t a presence in America. Wild stories surfaced of the singer, now recast as the conscience of South Africa, committing suicide in the States, due to a lost love or an abandoned career. In the interviews scenes shot in the U.S., Rodriquez’s producers simply express bafflement over the total failure of his records in America; they can shed no light on what the lack of sales must have meant to their Mexican-American artist.
What happened to Rodriquez? Bendjelloul unravels the whole tale in Searching for Sugar Man. And it is a great story, one that touches on politics, unique personalities, the very different trajectories of two countries and the mysterious power of art. What makes the film so exciting isn’t just the amazing story of Rodriquez—though that would have been enough to make it a worthwhile doc. It’s the sheer storytelling craft of Bendjelloul, who has grasped his opportunity and made a terrific film. Let’s hope that it’s the first of many.