Sunday, July 29, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man

One of the great, rare joys of going to the movies is the delightful sensation of being surprised, even once but sometimes several times, by the changes in direction a story takes. Such is the case with the mind-blowing documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” It’s best to enter as I did, knowing little or nothing about a shy, mysterious, black-clad singer named Rodriguez, who released two albums in the early 1970s that garnered favorable comparisons to Bob Dylan, then disappeared from the world.

Stories proliferated about how Rodriguez died. His life and death took on the quality of legend. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of the producers or record-label execs he’d worked with, Rodriguez’s music had become an unofficial anthem of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. His albums, which might have sold a dozen copies stateside, went multi-platinum halfway around the world, where the Botha regime censored their antiestablishment lyrics and literally scratched up the records so they could not be played on the radio. Apparently an American had brought a bootleg copy into the country on vacation – or was it a South African tourist who returned home with one? Either way, the rest is history.

Or was, until a South African journalist in search of a story began to poke into the enigmatic mythology of Rodriguez. Who had he been? Where did the money from all the record sales go? The writer, Craig Bartholomew-Strydon, thought he was getting somewhere with his leg work when he obtained a key phone number. When the number was disconnected a day after he left a message, he knew he was getting somewhere. And from there, the story of Rodriguez unfolds.

Director Malik Bendjelloul’s film raises questions of the role of luck – good and bad – in life, of how our lives may be shaped by the information we have and the information we lack. You may find yourself thinking that Rodriguez’s life might have followed an entirely different path had he but known, but then as the movie develops, you think it might not have been so different at all. You may wonder whether such a lacuna would even be possible in the age of the Internet. There’s a lot to chew on in a sleeper of a documentary with a soundtrack that’s a must to own – if you can get your hands on it.

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