Cape Town record shop owner Stephen Segerman was nicknamed "Sugar Man" after his favourite song by early 1970s American folk singer Rodriguez. Since Rodriguez's two albums went unnoticed in the US, there's no information about the artist beyond conflicting rumours of his death. Segerman teams up with a journalist (Bartholomew-Strydom) to launch an international search, but no one has a clue. Even though Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones in South Africa, providing a voice for the anti-establishment movement at a time when Apartheid was at its most brutal.
Swedish filmmaker Bendjelloul starts by following this crazy quest, which eventually results in the startling discovery that Rodriguez is still living in Detroit. But the story doesn't end there, documenting not only the decline of post-Motown record labels launched by pioneers like Avant, but also an economic and political reality that we rarely see on screen. But this isn't a political film: it's a personal journey with a hugely endearing pay-off.
What's most fascinating is the way the film highlights the huge cultural gap between South Africa and the rest of the world. Rodriguez's records flopped in America, despite great reviews and a relevant style that's like a punchier, more melodic Bob Dylan. But the South Africans took to his music because he sang about individual pain and freedom, and refusing to obey a corrupt system.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez lived a tough life that's notable for its gritty integrity. So seeing him discovering his impact on the world is genuinely moving.
Bendjelloul assembles this without overstating the issues or sentimentalising the emotion. Even so, the stirs our righteous rage and makes our hearts leap.
It's gorgeously shot to capture the natural beauty of each setting, from snowy run-down Detroit to the sun-baked Cape, punctuated by clever animation that adds texture and mood. Most intriguing is how it changes the way we see "failed" acts from reality shows like The X Factor. It should be mandatory viewing for all contestants.
Run time: 86 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 26th July 2012
Box Office USA: $3.7M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Passion Pictures, Red Box Films, Canfield Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Fresh: 111 Rotten: 6
IMDB: 8.2 / 10
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Producer: Simon Chinn, Malik Bendjelloul
Screenwriter: Malik Bendjelloul
Starring: Dennis Coffey as Himself, Rodriguez as Himself, Steve Segerman as Himself, Mike Theodore as Himself
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