February 11, 2013 by abbyo
So far in No More Popcorn’s documentary Oscars exploration, I’ve explored two great-but-glum films, Academy-bait movies with political axes to grind, and good journalism to back them up. There’s no denying these movies have earned their acclaim, but it’s always nice when the nominated films include something a little less heavy. This week brings us to the happy, entertaining film of the bunch—this year’s “Man on Wire,” if you will. “Searching for Sugar Man” is the movie I was most looking forward to watching in this series of posts, simply because it looked like the most fun. Happily, it did not disappoint. “Searching for Sugar Man” stands out like a beacon of hope and joy amidst a group of Oscar contenders that might otherwise seek to destroy your faith in humanity. It provides lessons both historical and musical, not to mention providing viewers with a few excellent musical rabbit holes to explore after the credits have rolled.
“Searching for Sugar Man” is the story of enigmatic musician Sixto Rodriguez, a formidably talented but strangely overlooked singer-songwriter who released a pair of hauntingly beautiful albums in the early 70s that sold next to no copies in the U.S. But while Rodriguez faded into obscurity elsewhere, in South Africa his music became wildly popular, forming the soundtrack to the anti-Apartheid movement. When a young South African music journalist decided to track down the real story of the icon (urban legends alternately claimed Rodriguez set himself on fire, blew his brains out onstage or simply overdosed), he discovered Rodriguez was alive and working construction in his hometown of Detroit. In a tale of real rock-and-roll redemption, the journalist and a fellow Rodriguez fanatic find the musician and convince him to go on tour in South Africa.
As much as the film sheds light on an artist whose work is criminally unknown, it also provides an interesting history of Apartheid culture in South Africa—a story that’s probably also largely unknown to anyone outside that country. What “Sugar Man” shows about the country’s censorship laws and its cultural isolation from the rest of the world is easily as interesting as the story of what happened to Rodriguez after he recorded his last album (which is plenty interesting).
Even without the curious back story or the real-life fairy tale of Rodriguez’s incredibly successful South African tour, “Sugar Man” is worth watching for the music alone. It’s so good it’s difficult to believe the artist was never a hit in his home country. Dylanesque in its message, but Nick Drake-like in its musicality, Rodriguez’s songs also have a grounded feeling that’s personal and honest. Fortunately, the success of the documentary has translated into some additional success on American shores for the musician—he’s played several shows since its release. I can only hope the film’s Oscar nomination will finally get him the exposure he really deserves.