Decades after Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez disappeared following the commercial failure of his albums, two fans try to track down their idol.
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“These are the days of miracles and wonder”: so says journalist and writer Rian Malan (semi-quoting Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble”) in this brilliant music documentary.
“Searching for Sugar Man” chronicles the mythic tale of lost folk musician Rodriguez, who released two terrific albums in the early 70s. Both records died a silent death in the United States, barely making it onto the radar of even the most clued-up music fans. The story was different in South Africa, however, where one of his records somehow crossed the ocean and became a huge word-of-mouth hit. Tapes were passed around the underground music scene, to the point that Rodriquez’s two albums, released just a year apart, became huge hits, even as the country was still deep in apartheid.
Swedish documentarian, Malik Bendjelloul, looks back at the story through two Cape Town super fans who went in search of the truth about their elusive idol in the late 90s. The film plays out as a sort of mystery thriller, as the layers are slowly peeled back. It’s a fascinating narrative device and if, like me, you have no idea of the true story going in, it makes for an amazing ride, and a damn emotional one. I broke down at multiple points, weeping at the sheer beauty of it all.
But Bendjelloul doesn’t just rely on this amazing tale and relax. He also experiments with the visual style. He absorbs the beautiful South African scenery and sends his freewheeling camera on great long tracking shots of these storied streets. It seems to be a trend in modern documentaries, but he also includes some atmospheric animated sequences, both hand-drawn and computer generated.
More important is the music, and it’s suitably magical, allowing Bendjelloul to hit right to the mercurial heart of music’s life-affirming power. Rodriguez was an anti-establishment icon to many young South Africans, helping to fuel the flames of an Afrikaans musical revolution: and the fact he had absolutely no idea of his influence is the ultimate tragedy. Hearing these songs played now, as they are throughout the documentary, you feel the great journey these tunes have undergone and every heart they have touched.
This kind of lost hero story probably won’t ever happen again in our increasingly interconnected world. At least, I’d like to think a talent like this wouldn’t get lost, as it did then. But, I’m so glad it did, because it gifted us with this magnificent film. There are a lot of great documentaries on Netflix, but this has to go down as one of the very best.
Have you seen this documentary? Let us know your opinions in the comments below and of course if there are any films on Netflix UK you want us to review let us know!