Searching for Sugar Man” presents several fascinating topics. The story of an obscure American folk artist who became a superstar in South Africa, completely without his knowledge, could be a story about a scrappy artist finally finding artistic recognition. It could be about expectations of art and/or fame. Rewritten as a fictional screenplay, this could be a fascinating comedy about a normal person suddenly having enormous fame and fandom hoisted on them, examining the pros and cons of that situation.
But, because this isn’t a fictional film, it can’t be any of those things. The film intentionally withholds revealing Rodriguez, the artist at the story’s center, for the first hour. During this half, his fans and the men who tracked him down expand on the legend. We learn a little about the guy, how his music came to be released and was subsequently ignored by the public. How, seemingly by chance, this obscure artist was seized on by a generation of young people, buckling against a tyrannical regime. My favorite bits involve the home-made myth-waiving his fandom participated in. Common knowledge soon has it that Rodriguez killed himself during a performance, in a myriad of ways for numerous different reasons. Of course, none of that ends up being true and a group of fans, after long searching, finally manage to track the man down, living a humble life in Detroit.
The film only briefly attempts to explain why Rodriquez’ music resonated so much with South Africans. Why there’s certainly nothing wrong with the guy’s hippy-folk music, it seems odd that the public of one place would latch onto him so much, when any other number of Dylan-esque acoustic strummers extended the same messages. Something the film suggests but never outright presents is the theory that fame is totally on a whim. There’s no predicting success. Once again, a fictional, scripted movie could have explored this concept more fully.
Rodriquez proves a fairly interesting character. The man seems to have no bitterness over his music failing to find an audience in his home country. He spent the twenty years between the failure of his musical career and his rediscovery mostly working odd jobs around the city, aside from a brief run at local politics. Watching the guy discover the massive fan base he has on the other side of the world proves to be a fairly satisfying emotional conclusion. When faced with a stadium full of cheering, screaming fans, the look of pure joy on Rodriquez’ face makes the whole film worth seeing. Oddly, even after discovering his stardom, the guy willingly returns to Detroit, to a simple, unenchanted life. So, why would anyone choose one over the other? To stay humble? To appreciate his fanbase more? The film doesn’t elaborate, choosing to portray Rodriquez as a mysterious, shaman-like figure. This is a bit of a shame since it would have provided some prime meat for what is otherwise a rather thin, if highly charming, documentary. [7/10]