The Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars likes to celebrate documentaries about the American political zeitgeist. Inside Job, Bowling for Columbine, An Inconvenient Truth– the Academy rewards movies that have stayed within the national conversation, in many circumstances those who have shaped it.
This year’s winner, Searching for Sugar Man, isn’t about politics. Sure, some of it is about how the music of one folk singer inspired a generation of white South African youth living in the days of the apartheid regime. But apartheid just adds another dimension to the main question of the film. And the big question in Searching for Sugar Man is: where’s Sugar Man?
The Sugar Man in question is Sixto Rodriguez (the nickname is taken from his song of the same name), a folk singer from the early Seventies who failed to make even a ripple in the American and British music scenes. After two albums- 1970’s Cold Fact and the follow-up Coming From Reality– Rodriguez gave up his musical ambitions and went back to working manual labour in Detroit. Unbeknownst to him however, his music gained a following in countries like South Africa, and while he wallowed in anonymity in the United States, he became a legend to folk fans thousands of miles away.
The movie follows some South African fans as they attempt to find out what happened to him. Were the stories true? Did he douse himself in gasoline on stage and light a match? Or did he finish a song, pull out a gun, and blow his brains out over the audience? In the refreshingly candid interviews with past producers who’ve worked with Rodriguez, the rumours that caught like wildfire among his South African fan base are quickly and easily dispelled, but they only lead to more questions. And the answers to these questions, though a bit predictable, are nonetheless amazing.
There’s a fitting sense of melancholy surrounding the whole movie, not just because of the use of Rodriguez’s music as the score. It jumps from one depressing setting to another, from run down bars in Detroit to apartheid South Africa, all the while telling the story of a man who, taking the word of the producers who worked with him, should have been as big of Bob Dylan. Rodriguez’s story of wasted talent, when contrasted with the happiness his music brings out in the South African audience, is a sad one. But as we get to know more about Rodriguez, who he was and what he believed, it’s entirely fitting.
Searching for Sugar Man is tonally like the music of Rodriguez- bittersweet, enthralling, and incredibly moving. And of the past winners of the Best Documentary Feature award, this is one not stuck in place and time- its universal story will mean a lasting legacy, for both the film and Sixto Rodriguez.
Searching for Sugar Man is now available to rent.