Searching for Sugar Man (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

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There are one of two things that a documentary must choose to do. Either they must tell the truth, or they must tell a good story. In an ideal situation there's a lot of crossover, but when that fails we can only hope that the results aren't too mismanaged.

And I guess that leads me into my issues with Searching For Sugar Man, a good story built around an unconvincing movie. Because of the way it tries to manipulate the audience by creating a mystery that its participants have found the results of well in advance, the film spends most of its run time outright deceiving the viewer.

Does that make the story more intriguing? Yes. But as a documentary feature, this structure adds a layer of artificiality that damages most of what the film is trying to say. The story is more important here than the truth, which undermines the proceedings.

"Have you seen a man made of sugar? I am seeking him."

Let me back up a second. Searching For Sugar ManĀ is about two men who have decided to track down one of their childhood idols. The musician's name was Rodriguez, and he put out two albums in the early 1970's that absolutely tanked everywhere in the world except for South Africa. In South Africa, he's considered on par with Elvis and bigger than The Rolling Stones, and under the repressive apartheid governments he was a rallying point for white kids to voice their dissatisfaction. Rodriguez supposedly killed himself on stage at one point, and the film is an investigation into how and why that happened.

Which is an interesting story, though it's hard to get revved as the movie parades white person after white person onto the screen to talk about how privileged they were during Apartheid, and then show one black man and paint him as the villain. Look, I'm not saying that he isn't taking all of Rodriguez's royalties and running, but the film refuses to investigate any further, using implication of one hostile interview to paint the picture for them.

It's unsavory, and really paints their investigative abilities in a poor light. Many of the climactic interviews they get are marred by not asking any tough or imploring questions, trying to create implications on their own without giving principals the ability to speak for themselves. Now I'm all for letting the audience put two and two together, but in a documentary with so many questions needing to be asked, we watch interview after interview of nobody asking them. It's infuriating.

Rodriguez's daughter is one of the rare people in the film to arouse genuine emotion.

Rodriguez's music, which plays throughout the film, is good, and a product of its times. Bob Dylan gets brought up a lot as a comparison point, and its apt, though there is a great deal of lovely orchestration used to back Rodriguez's work. Odds are good you'll leave the theater humming a few tunes at the very least.

And it's a good story; what they discover plays like a Hollywood film, but it's tough since you know that's exactly how it has been constructed after the fact. There are so many dark corners unexplored and overt manipulation that it was a deeply difficult film for me to enjoy.

P.S. -- If any of this intrigues you, skip the trailer, which takes away much of the surprise of the film.

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Posted by Danny

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  1. This review make a few good points about the fact that a normal documentary should steer away from manipulations, but these points do not absolutely apply in the case of “Sugar Man”, and the reason is this: The film maker is proposing to take us on a discovery of the journey which (announced in the title) was “searching”… You cannot very well uncover a search if you expose its conclusion. Indeed, a lot of facts are glossed over, but it appears, so far, that no lie is told. I do not agree that the filmmaker failed to ask tough questions, or did a poor job of uncovering data. A chunk of history has been excised, indeed, presumably to make the discovery process more emotive, but I suspect that the point of this is to allow all of us, the public, unaware as we have been of Rodriguez’s music, to “speed-date” emotionally through forty years so we can be brought up to speed and to date. The purpose of this is emotional, because the reality behind this is a deeply emotional one. I would contend that the documentary is done as well as can be if the point is to share an powerful “emotional experience.” And there is an argument to be made for crafting films that try and share a sense of awesome power, fate, or joy, at the end of what is often, for many common folk, a dark tunnel of sustained doubt and futility. This is not a documentary about the facts of apartheid, or the facts of recording industry improprieties, but a story about a man overlooked by history, that has vanished, and arguably, emotions get you there in under 80 minutes whereas intellectual minutia may never achieve that end. I would take an opposing view and say “how wonderful, that we can all join in on the emotional roller-coaster, and give long overdue cheers.” Few people get to be discovered with their entire story behind them. The film is hugely successful the world over, and this is because people are thankful for all its surprises, and all its drama – this was the only way to bring such a story to so many people, while there was still time. Sometimes, the end does justify the means.

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