Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man Is Nonfiction Magical Realism

*NB: The film's promotional materials reveal a plot point that the movie's chronology withholds. If
you'd like to be surprised, read no further, but by all means, rent.

There are some documentaries that unsettle you to the deepest core of your being, putting you right off your brunch. I'm looking at you, Capturing the Friedmans. There are others that remind you that though the world can be a place fraught with suffering, it is also replete with miracles. Searching for Sugar Man is definitely in the latter category.

The 2012 film (and that year's Best Documentary Feature winner) chronicles the rise and fall and unexpected re-rise of a Mexican-American singer-songwriter with all of Bob Dylan's poetic lyricism and righteous anti-establishment rage and none of his success: Rodriguez. After a couple of years in the late 60s and early 70s playing gigs in places named thing like, unironically, The Sewer, Rodriguez returned to a job in construction and a brief flirtation with local politics, surrendering his hopes of a musical career. Haven't heard of him? You must be American.

What neither he, nor his producers, nor (probably) his record label knew was that while he was demolishing buildings and doing whatever one does with drywall, his music was fueling the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and the artist himself had become a quasi-mythical figure around whom rumors of a spectacularly gruesome onstage suicide were as widely and ferociously traded as the bootleg copies of his two albums.

Because of the nature of a dictatorship, South Africans had very little unsanctioned information about the world outside their borders. But even though his fans (which, it seems important to note, seem to be largely white) didn't know who or where Rodriguez was, they did know that his lyrics criticizing unjust economic and social practices (inspired by his native Detroit) gave them a vocabulary with which to resist and begin to dismantle the cruelties and perversions of human dignity they were witnessing. And when a couple of musicians and writers try to hunt down the true biography of their poet and prophet, a pretty magical reunion takes place.

One of the journalists interviewed by the filmmaker describes this unlikely series of events as sounding like "a bad PR campaign" because it was so unlike how he understands the world to work, and Searching for Sugar Man feels like a myth while watching. Rodriguez remains an elusive figure throughout, even after he is rediscovered. He slides through different names and identities as purposefully and smoothly as he walks through the largely abandoned streets of the working-class neighborhood where he still lives in Detroit, and is clearly uncomfortable talking about his remarkable story. But it's a story that makes poets of his his fellow construction workers and family as they marvel at how their unassuming friend and father lives a dual life as a South African rock star. Though not quite reaching the heights of exuberant aesthetic grace achieved by Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man will make you believe in fairy tales.

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