Most “rockumentaries” follow a standard formula: baby pictures, interviews with family members, the rise to fame, and the tragic drug overdose concluding with the death of the artist.
However, Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary on long, lost musician Sixto Rodriguez breaks this traditional format in Searching for Sugar Man. It’s a film one-part rockumentary and another part mystery, as a music journalist goes on a quest to find out what really happened to the enigmatic singer — did he really set himself on fire at a show? Or was it a bullet to the head?
The beginning of Bendjelloul’s film depicts animations of Rodriguez, an unknown troubadour in America but South Africa’s equivalent to Bob Dylan, walking down a Detroit street.
Later in the film, this animated image is mirrored in live-action, which beautifully differentiates the “dream” with reality illustrating that those two realms can perhaps align with one another — one of the major themes of the film.
Most film-viewers can attest to the agitation in watching a documentary with interviews that are obviously scripted because the point of a documentary is to give the viewer raw, unmasked footage of reality. Bendjelloul achieves the latter in his film as he befriends a bumbling bricklayer, gets into a heated debate with the producer of RPM records, and intently listens to Rodriguez modestly explain his musical career.
In this footage, the personalities of the interviewees come through as well as the personality of the filmmaker. Documentaries are ultimately two-sided discussions, and Bendjelloul chooses to show this to the viewer, creating a sense of genuineness that is oftentimes edited-out in similar films.
Bendjelloul’s rockumentary functions on a higher level than most others because he ultimately refutes the American Dream (“you can be anything you want to be”) by showing the viewer the transience of a hippie’s musical career in America in the 1970s.
Instead of finding success in America, Rodriguez inadvertently becomes a megastar in South Africa (the South African Dream?), leaving America regretful decades later as we realize that Rodriguez could have been a part of an influential counterculture that included the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan. If only he’d been given the chance.
— Sam Gennett, Managing Editor