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Sundance 2012. Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man”

The tale of the disappearance and rediscovery of singer-songwriter Rodriguez premieres to generally positive reviews.
The DailySearching for Sugar Man

As Jacob Combs reported yesterday, when Sony Pictures Classics picked up Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man, the opening night film for the World Cinema Documentary Competition became the first official buy of this year's Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures followed, as Dana Harris reports, also at indieWIRE, by taking Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles, which opened the US Documentary Competition (and a roundup's on the way).

"Detroit birthed an amazing wealth of musical talent from the late 1950s to the early 70s — Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, to name two," begins Julie Makinen in the Los Angeles Times. "But the story of a stillborn talent — that of an enigmatic Mexican American folk singer known simply as Rodriguez — may be the most fantastic ever to come out of the Motown era…. Born to Mexican immgrant parents in the early 1940s in Detroit, Rodriguez combined the inner-city soul of Motown singers with a Bob Dylan-like flair for songwriting, the gentle demeanor of a poet, and a suave sex appeal that brings Jimi Hendrix to mind. He played bars around the Motor City in the late 1960s, and cut two records that were critically well received but failed to sell. Unbeknown to him, though, a copy of one of his albums somehow found its way to South Africa."

"For a quarter of a century," writes Eric Kohn for indieWIRE, "the singer landed a massive following in the country where his humanitarian outlook provided an escape for many disgruntled youth struggling under apartheid, elevating him to the stature of a 'South African Elvis.'"

"Those kids who grew up listening to Rodriguez (and went on to protest the government through song) didn't find it strange that they didn't know much about him, given that they were largely cut off culturally from the rest of the world," adds Noel Murray at the AV Club. "The fascinating, touching documentary Searching For Sugar Man tries to sort out the facts of Rodriguez's life from the legends and rumors — which among his South African fans included the story that he'd committed suicide onstage." Bendjelloul "gets what's most powerful about this story: how it speaks to the mythological qualities of pop music, especially as they pull profoundly against reality. The imagined Rodriguez gave comfort to a nation. Without giving too much away, I'll say that the real Rodriguez turns out to have been just as remarkable."

"Why such an extraordinary voice failed to catch on back then is the film’s enduring mystery," writes David D'Arcy for Screen.

"Despite an affecting soundtrack featuring Rodriquez's wistful music and penetrating lyrics, the unexpected twist late in the film struggles to overcome flagging narrative momentum following 60 minutes of interviews and largely unrelated cutaways showcasing attractive South African landscapes and gritty Detroit street scenes," finds Justin Lowe in the Hollywood Reporter. "While it's unquestionable that Rodriquez is long past receiving his due as an inspiring and accomplished musician, it's unlikely that even re-editing some footage could improve the pacing, since there probably isn't much worthwhile material to add, and so the film's remarkable revelations come too late to relieve the creeping inertia."

But for Todd Gilchrist, writing for the Playlist, Searching for Sugar Man is "a hugely entertaining, emotionally touching, and musically revelatory experience."

Brief interviews with Bendjelloul: Filmmaker and indieWIRE.

Update: "Though manipulative in its storytelling and structure, Searching For Sugar Man ultimately earns its happy ending by alchemizing pain into transcendent beauty." The AV Club's Nathan Rabin gives it an A-.

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