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Blu-ray Review: Searching For Sugar Man

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Searching For Sugar Man is the story of folk singer Rodriguez, who after releasing two albums in the early ’70s, faded into obscurity. Except in South Africa, that is, where his music became a phenomenal success, as well as an artistic inspiration of rebellion during the time of apartheid. But for all this localized success, South Africans knew nothing about this man for decades, until some enterprising fans embarked on a journey of discovery into what happened to their musical hero.

The Movie

Rodriguez is an American folk-soul singer-songwriter who grew up in Detroit, and during the late ’60s began playing his unique brand of lyrically rich counter-culture songs in the bars of clubs of the inner city. Often playing with shades on and his back to the audience, an air of mystery was about him from the beginning. It was in this setting where a couple of prominent producers discovered him and signed him to a record deal, banking on the quality of his music and writing that they had the next Dylan on their hands. However, the music failed to translate into stateside sales and after two commercially ignored albums Rodriguez quietly faded into obscurity.

And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams

Maybe today, yeah
I’ll slip away

– “I’ll Slip Away”

For many artists this is a typical story, as the music industry can be quite the fickle mistress, trading on luck and frequently discarding talent both great and gamble. But for Rodriguez it didn’t quite end there. A chance seeding of bootleg copies of his albums in South Africa found fertile ground and began spreading quickly as word of mouth feverishly grew about this unknown artist from the States. His rebellious lyrics and polished music became fuel among the youth and those who railed against apartheid. Even though censored from radio, his music became its own revolution and would eventually earn him platinum sales and make his a name on the level with Elvis in that country.

The only problem is that he knew nothing of this success, and South Africans in return knew nothing about him. Even the royalty payments from his sales there mysteriously vanished, and for decades the mystery of this unknown hero became a colossal oddity in the country. He was almost more legend than man, and in the empty space of details, wild stories about him were concocted instead, including differing versions of how he took his own life on stage.

Searching For Sugar Man recounts how two fans began an earnest search to find out what really happened to their musical hero. They embarked on a cross-country quest, using phone directories, inquiries in trade publications and early Internet message boards to eventually discover that all this time their hero was living safe and sound in Detroit as a day laborer, without even the slightest clue that his music had even made it halfway across the globe, much less that he was a musical and cultural icon in South Africa.

The documentary recounts this fascinating story that gets even better after the parties meet and some of the distance and time from the past 40 years is cinched up. Director Malik Bendjelloul – who is Swedish, adding yet another international piece to this puzzle – delivers a brisk, entertaining and intriguing character study of an uncelebrated musician who finally received some of his due. In the process, we meet several of the key people involved during his brief early career, as well as many South Africans who were both inspired by his work and helped to make sure his story didn’t end in obscurity. It’s both an enjoyable and inspirational tale, and one of the more intriguing documentaries of the past few years.

Video / Audio

There is a variety of source material used in the film, and so picture quality can vary widely scene to scene. All of the new location and interview footage is presented from very clean digital sources, with crisp detail and pleasant colors. A good bit of vintage super 8 footage – which shows South Africa during the 1970s – is enjoyable, with the obvious limitations and caveats of the medium. Some rather meager video footage – perhaps VHS – is also utilized and these sections obviously are what they are. But overall the time travel between formats and sources works well, and the new material reveals a very well-managed transfer.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is actually more impressive than one would expect for a documentary grounded by interviews and stereo music recordings. The music cues are very well mixed and offer noticeable punch and immersion, being more integrated into the surround mix than one might expect. The dialogue sections are obviously front-centric, but kept deftly balanced. There are even a few standout moments where surround activity from either environment or foley sounds is integrated more deeply. For a documentary the sound on this disc is quite good, and provides an extra layer of polish not always present in the genre.

Bonus Material

If you’re looking for the commentary track by director Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez himself to answer all the questions left over from the film, prepare to be somewhat disappointed. Bendjelloul carries the conversation, with excited energy to spare, while Rodriguez offers occasional memories from the creation of his two albums and otherwise seems overly reticent to answer many questions. Bendjelloul provides several interesting tidbits about the actual filming of the documentary, but even he admits that there are a couple of mysteries still outstanding.

“Making Sugar Man” (HD, 30:48) is quite a good ancillary discussion on making the documentary, almost a candid extension of the film at times, and a behind-the-scenes look during others. “An Evening With Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez” (HD, 10:43) is mainly interesting to see Rodriguez perform a live, acoustic rendition of one of his songs before a panel audience at the Tribeca Film Festival, followed by him evading basically all the questions sent his way. Finally, the “Theatrical Trailer” (HD, 2:00) is included.

Conclusion

Searching For Sugar Man works on several levels. First, it’s an intriguing story with a happy ending, told skillfully. It’s also an underdog’s journey, with a likable hero to root for. But especially for music fans, it’s a revelation of previously unheard gems. The man’s material is the real deal, and the fact that quality songs at this level could remain underground for four decades is truly a mystery. Bendjelloul unfolds his tale briskly and effortlessly and the film offers a feel-good musical journey from start to finish. The bonus material is a bit hit and miss, but a quality documentary and good technical presentation make this Blu-ray an easy recommendation.

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About David R Perry