F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 24, 2014)

24 01 2014

Searching for Sugar ManThankfully, there never seems to be any shortage of documentaries tackling the quandaries and complexities of our livable reality, but at times the sheer volume of non-fiction film can be overwhelming. Even from just a search of what’s available on Netflix, it’s hard to sort out the real deal from the TV special or the DVD extra quality material.  Thankfully, the Academy Awards are pretty helpful at shining a spotlight on a selection of high quality documentaries each year.

While I might quibble with their flagrant (some might argue inexcusable) exclusion of “Stories We Tell” in their 2013 crop, they brought a film called “Searching for Sugar Man” to my attention last year when it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  Malik Bendjelloul’s film might seem a little slight on the surface, but it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it shows the surprising cultural impact of its subject along with his inspiring story.

The film follows the mysterious figure of Rodriguez, a folk singer who could easily have been a figure of Bob Dylan’s stature.  (Just listen to his jam “I Wonder” and feel yourself get taken away by the music.)  Despite his incredible talent, his music just never hit a nerve in America.  Rodriguez then faded into obscurity and then disappeared from the public eye entirely.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, his music sparked a cultural revolution.  To them, Rodriguez was like Elvis Presley or the Beatles as his music pushed boundaries on sexual expression in public culture.  And this was just his lyrics alone; there was no man associated with them.  The music just spoke for itself.

But after several decades South Africans began to wonder who the singer really was and began a quest to track down the elusive man.  Bendjelloul documents their investigation like a gripping mystery until they eventually find their answer.  The man they discover is hardly the recluse we’d expect, though.  He’s just an average man shocked to find out the impact his songs had on a faraway country.

In our hyper-connected world today where we can know our favorite musicians every thought on social media, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another story like that of “Searching for Sugar Man” again.  It’s like the ultimate edition of Entertainment Weekly‘s “Where Are They Now?” issue but told with more heart than a journalistic article.  Bendjelloul’s film is a touching ode to the way music can change the world – as well as one man, many years later.

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