Music documentaries have gone from a niche audience to overblown saturation. Every musician wants a film, and for good reason, it helps document their lives and specific milestones. The problems with many of these are they're celebrating artists who have reached astonishing heights of success. Further, the artist themselves often have final cut which gives a slanted and often unbalanced picture of their career. When acts hand over themselves to filmmakers who attempt to make the best film possible, regardless of how the artist is exemplified, these are the films that remain in our minds; Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Shut Up and Sing by the Dixie Chicks and Anvil: The Story of Anvil are the highpoints of music documentaries over the last decade often because these films found the respective acts at their most vulnerable and in the end, this is what the directors chose to exposed in the film, for better or worse making it irrefutable. Last summer I sat in a movie theater watching the documentary Searching for Sugar Man and despite knowing how it ended, I was captivated and drawn into the film which only happens a few times a year. I sat there with a grin a mile wide as this film was a marriage of my two favorite art forms- music and movies. There was no denying this was top-tier filmmaking but more importantly, it was beaming a huge light on the man whose talents went undiscovered for far too long. It's fueled by heart and the fact that it was revealing an artist lost to time was an added bonus. When the film won the Oscar for best documentary, it was a well-deserved.
Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul found a way to reinvent the wheel of the music documentary by turning the film into a jigsaw puzzle about the relatively unknown artist Sixto Rodriguez who put out two albums more than forty years ago before disappearing all together. But the story doesn't end there. Somewhere along the line his debut record, Cold Fact was brought to South Africa by a visitor where it took on mythic proportions selling a half-million copies over the decades in a country infinitely smaller than the United States. He sold more records in South Africa than Elvis Presley and all anyone knew about the man was that he committed suicide onstage when his career took a dive. Or did he? This premise leads director Bendjelloul on a fascinating journey throughout South Africa back to Detroit and to South Africa again. The story focuses on two fans, Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, who in the 1990s attempt to uncover the mystery and myth of Rodriguez and the virtually implausible turn the story takes. It's important to note that Bendjelloul skipped a few elements of Rodriguez's career for his story arc and there has been criticism about this. I personally feel Bendjelloul made the right choice, because this was not a straight forward biopic but one that unfolds in a sense of surprise for the audience. I'm a music fanatic and had never heard a note of Rodriguez's music before this film and I was so moved by the film and soundtrack that they both made my top-ten lists for film and music last year. Kid Rock also took to his Facebook account to encourage his fans to seek the film out and the artist as well, because even being from Detroit didn't help Rock, he was unaware of Rodriguez until this film as well. Without this film, Rodriguez would have remained be a cult artist and a footnote in the annals of music, but now Rodriguez is a man whose career is not just documented but celebrated with BAFTA and Oscar awards.
The film was made on a shoe string budget with standard cameras and editing done on his Apple computer. While I can't say Sugar Man will be a demo disc for your home video collection, it looks every bit as good as it did in the theater and possibly better. There is some significant home video footage and still photographs along with animation that takes the film down several different avenues and never does the transfer look cheap, in fact this is a film that you never would have expected to have cost much more than it did.
Besides the dramatic unfolding of the story of Sixto Rodriguez, what authenticates the film is the music within. Each song feels like a long lost classic deeply embedded within our DNA. Despite having never heard most of these songs before seeing the film, they felt instantly familiar. Hearing them as this story unfolds only further validates his genius. The Blu-ray houses a DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack. The interview footage sounds great, but where the film makes its greatest impression is in the showcased music. Each and every one of Rodriguez's songs sounds animatedly prodigious. Your heart will break, be filled up with love and break again when you hear them. If anything, the Blu-ray gives a better sound presentation of the film than when I saw it in a theater. It's a stunning track and rightfully so because when the subject matter has this many A-grade tunes, you better make the audience not just discover them but fall in love with them as well.
While there are plenty of other Blu-ray discs with more bells and whistles, the extra material included on the disc are everything you would need. Up first is a commentary track with director Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez himself. The track starts off slow, but is never a bore. Bendjelloul isn't afraid to share his filmmaking secrets with the audience. Specific landscape shots that look sweeping were often done on a shoe string budget with major limitations. He discusses his need to create the score for the film and also his issues with money and how he took on more and more jobs for the film to make it a reality. Rodriguez doesn't have much to offer in the first half of the commentary only chiming in when Bendjelloul asks him questions, which he often answers hesitantly, but as the film goes on, he warms up and offers other insights into the process. One of the more fascinating aspects of the track is we learn Rodriguez had little to do with the film and he doesn't even know some of the people interviewed, which makes for a good discussion. The "Making Sugar Man" feature runs thirty-minutes and offers a consolidated behind-the-scenes look of the making of the film. It's a nice piece that compliments the commentary. For those who opt to not listen to the commentary, this is a must-see, as it details the struggle to bring this story to life and the reaction to the film. "An Evening with Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez" only runs ten-minutes but features the two answering questions at the Tribeca Film Festival. The disc is rounded out by the film's trailer and previews of other assorted Sony releases.
Searching for Sugar Man is a film that makes you believe in miracles, hard work and being the best at what you do because even if it is not noticed instantaneously, somewhere over time, someone will find a way to bring you and your talents to the forefront. When the film ended, I wanted to see it again and more importantly, wanted to hear this music again. The soundtrack of Searching for Sugar Man is one of the most perfect records I have heard in recent years. There are superb reissues of his Cold Fact and Coming From Reality albums but for me, the soundtrack serves the purpose of containing all of his five-star songs on one collection. The honeyed harmonies and stimulating lyrics can be matched by few, but I promise you, the songs will stick to your insides as soon as you hear them leaving you wonder why these records didn't find their respective audiences when released more than forty years ago. Searching for Sugar Man is one of the ten best films to appear in the last few years and it's one of those rare films that will elevate you and even possibly transform your outlook on life. The best part is that even when the credits roll, you can take these dreams with you in the form of the soundtrack. The film, the Blu-ray and accompanying soundtrack aren't items you will watch or listen to once, but revisit time and time again.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMusic DOT com and can be followed on Twitter