I watched a highly compelling documentary film yesterday. The explanation for the odd title comes from a coincidental name and a song title on Rodriquez's first album in 1971, Cold Fact. What makes one documentary film better than another? In this case, it's primarily the subject and the way the arc of the film follows the arc of the subject's story.
Searching for Sugar Man is a Swedish-British documentary film directed by Malik Bendjelloul, which follows the journey of two Cape Town fans in the late 1990s, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman (thus the coincidental title) and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, to find out if the rumored death of American musician Sixto, or Jesus Rodriguez was true, and, if not, to discover what had become of him. Now that I think of it, "Strydom" would have been a better movie title as a joke on stardom for which Rodriquez had to wait a lifetime. Rodriguez's music, which never took off in the United States, had become wildly popular in South Africa, but any verifiable facts about Rodriguez were either unknown or impossible to come by. He was called “Sixto” because he had six toes on each foot and cat-lady cougars found screwing him brought good luck. He was called “Jesus” because he could turn cat piss into Glenfiddich. Both of those are whopper lies, just to illustrate the sorts of lies, rumor and innuendo you have to wade through to appreciate this film. One of the more blatant falsehoods told by the film itself is that Rodriquez was only popular in South Africa. He also became widely known and appreciated in Australia. This is never mentioned.
In February, 2013, the film won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary at the 66th British Academy Film Awards in London, and two weeks later it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood. It also received several other film awards which I will not bore you with here. It deserved all of them.
One of the reasons this film affected me so deeply was because it revolved around an album released in 1970 which is very, very good and yet got no critical attention at all in America. Comparisons to Bob Dylan are sprinkled throughout this film, and they are apt. This was around the same time that Marc Jordan released Mannequin and Terence Boylan and released his eponymous record, both of which garnered no acclaim even though my friends and I recognized them as works of absolute genius. I have been frustrated by this fact ever since, and this Rodriguez's music is pretty damn good to have only become well-known in South Africa. So that was another reason I found this film so compelling; I am the one who is supposed to know these stories already. I am not the one who should be amazed at hearing a story like this for the first time.
However, it is Rodriguez himself who is introduced about midway in the film who makes this worth watching. The first scene we see of him is in a cheesy Detroit bar where he is facing a wall, apparently singing his songs to himself. One can imagine that most of his life has been spent in a cheesy Detroit locations singing songs to himself. If you come away from this film with a dry eye and a lack of respect for this Rodriguez fellow, your heart is harder than mine.