|Film review: Searching for Sugarman|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Tuesday, 24 July 2012 07:00|
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Have you heard of Rodriguez?
A singer. American. Played guitar in back-street dumps in Detroit. Discovered by a producer in the 1970s. Released two albums. Both of them flopped. Last seen about 30 years ago when he blew his head off on stage in the middle of a gig. Or torched himself alive. Or something.
No, me neither.
But it turns out that they have heard of him in South Africa. Over there, they love him to bits. He's a full-on national hero - a guy whose songs inspired a generation to stand up for their rights. Like the lovechild of Bob Dylan and Nelson Mandela.
It's no surprise that his music was so influential there.
His lyrics, from the rebellious ("This system's gonna fall soon / to an angry young tune / and that's a concrete cold fact") to the sad ("The sweetest kiss I ever got is the one I never tasted") are sheer poetry, set to strong guitar hooks and catchy backing tracks. One poignant song tells of a guy who loses his job two weeks before Christmas - only for the same thing to happen to Rodriguez a year later.
What is a surprise is that it never caught on anywhere else. Ever.
It's this bizarre juxtaposition of stardom that Malik Bendjelloul explores in Searching for Sugarman - an enthralling journey to understand who the hell this guy was. "I always thought he was just some homeless guy," laughs a former construction colleague back in America.
Bendjelloul faces one major problem in that he doesn't have much footage of Rodriguez doing his thing. He dabbles with stylish animation, but oddly gives up after the first (effective) attempt. Instead, we get gloomy shots of smoky bars accompanied by album excerpts. But the limited visuals only emphasise the stonking soundtrack; a five-star compilation of music that comes out of nowhere and grabs your ears by the balls.
So far, then, so decent. A compelling stange-but-true story of a talented musician.
But what happens next is what really hits the spot; a final twist in the tale that sees Searching for Sugarman change key from sensational to inspirational. How did Rodriguez really die? And was his family aware that he helped change the world?
Bendjelloul puts together the pieces with the confidence of a man who understands the charisma of this elusive icon. What you're left with is a dazzling documentary about an unsung hero who never cared about who was listening - and the sound of cool ringing in your ears.