Found below are four reviews of the the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, written by Lewis University students Cynthia Saucedo, Andrea Ecarma, Star Quiroz, Jerry Langosch.
Searching for Sugar Man: A Modern Fairy Tale
Searching for Sugar Man (2012), directed by the late Malik Bendjelloul, tells a story that would be considered a modern fairy tale. Rodriguez is introduced as a mystery, untraceable man, and a prophet. The film’s mystery is built-up by using low-key lighting, shadows, and foggy images. Furthermore, when sound is utilized, it creates an eerie feeling and generates excitement, while the lack of sound highlights the importance of a scene. Playing Rodriguez’s actual soundtrack makes the audience recognize the true beauty in his music and leads them to wonder why he never made it in the music industry.
The audience is hooked by the mystery of Rodriguez, even though it is slowly revealed that he is in fact not dead, but alive. Although his story is unraveled, Rodriguez continues to be portrayed as a mysterious figure by rarely showing his full face as it is frequently disguised by large black sunglasses, and he is often seen wearing dark clothes, leading the audience to places without destinations. This beautiful story is effectively told by using real footage and cartoon animations, not only to keep the audience interested but to also make the beginning of the film a puzzle. The lack of filters, misé-en-scene, and costuming add to Rodriguez’s down-to-earth persona and his authenticity, making it difficult not to like him.
Despite Rodriguez’s failures, he persevered and continued taking chances, knowing that he might not succeed. Two specific examples of his determination include his attempt to become mayor of Detroit and flying to South Africa for the first time to perform. Rodriguez was not hindered by his failures, he went right back to work and carried on with good morale; he showed his daughters that even though life had dealt him bad cards, there was still a bigger and better world out there. Not only does this film show the power of perseverance, it makes the audience feel tiny; Rodriguez was a legend but lived his life as a “failed” American rock star. Searching for Sugar Man highlights the importance of accepting failures, and not allowing them to hinder your life, while showcasing that the world is a much larger place than we sometimes realize.
Rodriguez: A Resurrected Legend
Many dream of seeing their name in lights with the utmost recognition in fame and fortune. For Sixto Rodriguez, this was not the case. He did not care about the money at all; he was all about his music. Searching for Sugarman (2012), directed by the late Malik Bendjelloul, captured the very essence that is Rodriguez. From the mystery surrounding his beautiful music to solving the mystery of his whereabouts, Bendjelloul keeps the viewer at the edge of their seat through the whole documentary.
The film opens with some soft-rock guitar accompanied by a man with a hauntingly beautiful voice, along with establishing shots of the breath-taking coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Right away, the audience is introduced to a man named “Sugar,” who is talking about the diegetic music from his radio. From that moment, the audience is hooked. Who exactly is the man singing in the background?
Rodriguez’s voice alone tied me to the documentary. He has the type of sound that relaxes you, yet haunts you all at once. However, with the help of Bendjelloul, we become fully immersed in his personality by presenting the audience with his backstory. Interview after interview, the audience is told a different story about how Rodriguez disappeared, only adding to the already prying question.
Each new chapter of the film starts with a sketched outline of a new area being filmed, along with a tracking shot of Rodriguez walking through it. It was a brilliant way to showcase how the artist is a normal human, just like us. It establishes the idea that like art, he can be real or he can be imaginary. Real or imaginary, this adds a layer of depth and meaning to the film. Bendjelloul’s plot builds up so much suspense, having the audience doubt that Rodriguez is even still alive. The mystery arising from the interviews, the suicide theories, and the unknown location of this man is what makes this documentary so thrilling at the same time.
The film is beautifully structured and Bendjelloul does an outstanding job at keeping the audience on their toes, which is accomplished through an excellent buildup of the plot. He captures the essence of Rodriguez perfectly, from his music to his true personality. Through the story of Rodriguez, Bendjelloul shows us that although you may feel that you are not making a difference in the world and that you are invisible, you could be making a difference to someone without even realizing it.
Simplicity and Authenticity in Searching for Sugar Man
Imagine having the lyricism and ability to strum melodies powerful enough to lead thousands through a dark period of oppression. Sixto Rodriguez’s inspiring music is able to reach the youth of South Africa during the movement against the discriminatory system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Despite his popularity reaching greater lengths in the country than even Elvis at the time, Rodriguez had no idea of his fame. Similarly, his fans knew very little of him, and he was believed to have committed suicide as a result of his mysterious persona.
While he lived a modest life in Detroit, loyal fans such as Stephen “Sugar” Segerman constantly searched to find out more about their long lost hero. Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man (2012) is a documentary that follows the search for Rodriguez, a man with a very distinguishable walk, who was deprived of his fame and fortune due to geographical barriers and an under-appreciation of his art.
The film skillfully uses Rodriguez’s music as the soundtrack, as well as dramatic silence, to trigger an emotional response. This manipulation of sound allows viewers to form a connection and relate to those that his music was able to impact (they are also really good songs). The leitmotif of the song “Sugarman” ties the film together and ultimately brings a sense of familiarity. The film is able to capture Rodriguez’s humility through the words of those that are closest to him.
The use of animated visuals, in what appears to be slightly slow motion, keeps the audience engaged by setting the tone and “flowing” with his music. The viewer is also kept visually intrigued by the mixing of camera strategy throughout the film. Simple camerawork depicts the realness of the documentary, while the noticeably old recordings of his performances added to the overall artistic appeal of the film. Bendjelloul proves that simplicity and authenticity can bring forth well-deserved success, much like it did for Rodriguez.
A Man, a Guitar, and All of South Africa’s Love
Sixto Rodriguez is a man. A man facing the back of a Detroit bar while performing original music that gives Bob Dylan a run for his money. His vanishing, the hunt for his legacy, and his eventual musical rebirth are covered in Searching for Sugar Man at a pace that’s not only an impossible combination of hopeful and melancholic, but wholly refreshing for modern documentaries. For someone that does not know who Rodriguez is, this film will be an emotional roller coaster. To those that do, it will likely tug at your heart strings throughout, and leave you in disbelief at the story of his life before his miraculous revival thanks to curious, committed fans. With Rodriguez’s music serving as a soundtrack, there’s nothing to dislike about the editing and mixing choices on all fronts.
Interviews conducted in public during Sugar Man have some of the most emotionally charged stories in recent memory. The interviewees, whether people that have worked with Rodriguez in Detroit or professionally in the music industry, will not only leave you wanting to know more about their connection to the titular comeback king, but about their hand in his life, mainly his unhinged South African revival. The staunch characterization of subjects in this film, some morally sound and some rather ambiguous, make it the opening to a realm of research; the shame being that the run time does not allow for more people touched by this previously unsung hero to step forward.
Any gripe with this movie comes with the sparsely used animations or visuals that felt out of place in the film. Most explanations come from interviewees or those that conducted the research in finding their Apartheid rebellion hero, thus making the interjections seem dry.
If ever there were a documentary that is completely pure of heart, only trying to see through the gossip and the lies perpetuated by world culture to find a warm reception and a truly happy ending (including a man being his best self without reaping the benefits of his hobbies), then Searching for Sugar Man is this documentary.
Cynthia Saucedo is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in chemistry. She currently works for the chemistry department grading and tutoring students, which she thoroughly enjoys. Cynthia spends most of her time in the lab doing research and has presented her work not only at Lewis, but also national conferences. In her free time, she likes to read, play badminton, and take walks with her four-legged best friends.
Andrea Ecarma is a junior at Lewis University and is majoring in computer science with a concentration in cyber security operations. Not only that, she is also the Secretary for Lewis eSports, a club dedicated to video games. She hopes to pursue her dream of graduating and working for one her favorite gaming companies, such as EA, Twitch, and Blizzard. Computer science may be where Andrea is headed, but her true love is in the fine arts. When she is not studying or working, she likes to spend her time doing photography, playing video games, singing, creating cinematic vlogs, and watching short films and skits.
Star Quiroz is a senior at Lewis University majoring in biology. She is working towards a career in the medical field, hoping to attend medical school after graduation. She is currently working as an assistant to a pediatrician where she translates and takes medical histories. When she’s not studying for an exam or at work, she likes to de-stress by spending time with her many pets, going on nature walks, and watching The Office or Bob’s Burgers.
Jerry Langosch is a senior at Lewis University majoring in computer science. He is graduating this December and is currently a part-time IT Specialist with West Liberty Foods in Bolingbrook. When not working or in class, Jerry spends time playing with his golden retriever, creating pop culture costumes with friends, and keeping up with modern film production. A few movies that inspire his taste in film include The Prestige, The Shining, and The Graduate.