Saturday, March 28, 2020

Searching for Sugar Man Balances Absorbing Twists with Grim Reality to Make a Great Underdog Tale

Who doesn't love a good underdog tale? We've been telling these kinds of stories ever since we were squatting around fires conjuring up yarns about how the stars were actually monsters. They tend to stir the soul by evoking our own desires to beat the odds & achieve victory while also using that universal desire to put us in the shoes of somebody else. We all may come from different backgrounds but we can all be united in our desires to be like Rocky Balboa or any other cinematic underdog that defied conventional wisdom and scored the impossible. Just as universally appealing as the basic underdog story is the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Who is Sugar Man? Well, that's a nickname for an artist by the name of Sixto Rodriguez. An American singer in the later 1960's and early 1970's, Rodriguez had a number of albums that received praise from music industry veterans as well as developing a cult following among dedicated listeners. However, in the United States, his albums never took off. Eventually, the stories about his famous suicide in front of concertgoers became more well-known than his albums and even that saga wasn't that ubiquitous. That seemed to be the end of Sixto Rodriguez...but then a funny thing happened. His music did take off. He did achieve fame. Those events just didn't occur in North America.

All the way over in South Africa, Rodriguez's music, which was all about challenging societal norms and rebelling against authority, had struck a chord with listeners in the country who were challenging Apartheid. His music became iconic in this country and decades after it first dropped onto the music scene there, a small group of South African journalists began to do some digging into the history of Sixto Rodriguez. In the process, a revelation is discovered: Rodriguez is alive. He now works construction in Detroit, Michigan with his family. The legends weren't true on this one folks, Rodriguez is not dead, he's surely alive!

Searching for Sugar Man keeps viewers like me who aren't knowledgable about Rodriguez totally in the dark on him being alive. It isn't until the journalists recounting this saga come to that part of the story did I gasp and realize that Sugar Man was, in fact, still kicking. Searching for Sugar Man constantly drops these surprising developments all through its runtime, including in the critical note about how Rodriguez's music struck a chord in South Africa. So much of this documentary sounds so far-fetched, you wouldn't believe it if you saw it in a music biopic. Cornball tripe in a narrative feature becomes a unpredictable & riveting tale in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. 

Tossing so many major twists turns out to be a great way to get the viewer placed into the headspace of those South African record store owners and journalists tracking down information on Rodriguez. We get to be just as shocked ats they were twenty-ish years ago at each new Sixto Rodriguez-related development that comes their way. While the sections focused on South African fans of Rodriguez are juicy twist-filled cinema, the sequences where director Malik Bendejelloul shifts focus over to Sixto Rodriguez living his life in Detroit, Michigan have a much more somber bittersweet atmosphere to them. Snow covers the landscape of most of these scenes as Rodriguez is interview in a rundown location reflecting his more ramshackle living conditions.

It's one of a number of ways Searching for Sugar Man poignantly captures the wistful nature of Rodriguez's career. Scenes depicting Rodriguez simply walking to and from his work instilled a sense of melancholy in me. These segments aren't saying his home is a Hell or anything hyperbolic like that but they reinforce the sense of humdrum routine that's a part of his challenge-filled life. Emphasizing that glib side of Rodriguez's life makes the scenes dedicated to Rodriguez going on his first concert tour in South Africa all the more richly satisfying though. It took him decades to get here but Rodriguez is getting to perform ever rock star's dream: performing his own music to a sold-out crowd of passionate fans. If Searching for Sugar Man's absorbing tale isn't the quintessential underdog story, I don't know what it is!

No comments:

Post a Comment