Searching for Sugar Man (review)

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Malik Bendjelloul 1977-2014

Normally when I post a review of something on here that’s because I’ve just seen it. Sadly this is not why I am reviewing Searching for Sugar Man. It’s director Malik Bendjelloul has been found dead apparently having killed himself. I confess that until I did not know who he was until I read his obituaries. So I will leave paying tributes to him as a person to others. However, I do want to say something about his work.

In Searching for Sugar Man, Bendjelloul found an extraordinary story to tell. It has two subjects: the first is a man from Detroit known as Rodriguez. He was a singer-songwriter hailed by a number of influential people as the next Dylan. He wrote in a similar contemporary folk style and the same political edge. However, the results are more satisfying. His songs feeling like a balanced whole rather than a vehicle for particular turns of phrase. And they are without doubt beautiful. By rights he should have been heading for a long career of musical success.

Instead, he released only two albums both of which sold poorly and Rodriguez sank into obscurity. He largely gave up being a professional musician and retired to his previous job as a construction worker.

And that would have been that had a copy of one of his albums not made its way to South Africa. There despite the efforts of apartheid era censors it found an audience as young, liberal Afrikaans devoured bootlegged copies of it. The result was that in South Africa and in South Africa alone, Rodriguez’s music was as ubiquitous as Elvis, the Beatles or indeed Dylan’s.

Bendjelloul’s second subject are those South African’s opening up after 1994 as an opportunity to try and discover Rodriguez’s story. This proved an uphill struggle as all they had to go on were conflicting stories about his suicide and the song lyrics. Bendjelloul interweaves their story and Rodriguez’s to great effect.

What he finally winds up producing is a story about the power of music. How it can help us shape our identities and alter worldviews. How songs can take on a life of their own. And even how the songs of construction worker in Detroit can help people an ocean away decide that they won’t perpetuate the sins of their parents.

Next to the loss of Bendjelloul’s family, friends and colleagues the loss of cinemagoers is trivial. Nonetheless, it is real. Judging by Searching for Sugar Man Bendjelloul would have gone on to produce more excellent films and I regret that we will now not see what they are.

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