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Searching For Sugar Man

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Mark Kermode Mark Kermode | 09:54 UK time, Tuesday, 31 July 2012

If you are looking for an alternative to the big summer movies there's a great music documentary out called Searching For Sugar Man. It explores the mystery of what happened to a musician who in South Africa in the 1970s was as big as the Beatles and then disappeared without trace...

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Related Posts on Kermode Uncut
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Mark's reviews on 5 live
Review: Searching for Sugar Man

Hear Mark Kermode review the week's new films every Friday from 2pm on BBC Radio 5 live. Kermode & Mayo's Film Review is also available as a free podcast to download and keep.



  • Comment number 1.

    I'm definitely going to check the film out. I've just listened to Rodriguez's two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reailty, and it really is a mystery to me as to why they became so obscure. It really makes you wonder how many other incredible artists we've missed out on because of a simple case of wrong place, wrong time.

  • Comment number 2.

    Maybe a perfect example of the ficklness of the record companies. Throw money at someone with talent then drop them like a stone when the wind changes or they don't sell the units they hoped for.

    As one of songs Daniel Johnson sang says 'Don't play the chords of fame"

  • Comment number 3.

    I saw "Sugarman" on Sunday, and not wanting to give anything away, as part of the pleasure is unravelling the mystery, it's a real life fairy tale. Afterwards i went back in to watch Swandown thinking it won't be as good as Sugarman and it was even better making this the most pleasurable day in the cinema i've had in years. I would even say that either of those films is better than The Dark Knight Rises.

    This whole argument about the filmmakers withholding information for dramatic effect is nonsense. Hitchcock once said that film is "life with the dull bits taken out" any documentary represents only a small percentage of the footage shot and are routinely edited to give it a narrative arc. To quote one histories great thinkers " that aint no history lesson, thats entertainment"

  • Comment number 4.

    This reminds me very much of Shuggie Ottis............he made one excellent, unique album in the very early 70's and then vanished. Yet, that one album has influenced a plethora of other artists, most notably Prince. I wish somebody would do a Sugarman on him.

    Artists who flirt with fame, or live on the margins of it, but still stay true to their art (unlike 99% who make it!) are always more interesting and credible. That's why the Anvil film was so enjoyable and why artists such as Rodriguez, Shuggie Ottis,Daniel Johnson, Rocky Erickson,Captain Beefheart and Syd Barret (who is also desparately in need of a definitive documentary) will always hold the interest and continue to sell for years after their 'careers' finished.

    Looking forward to seeing this film.

  • Comment number 5.

    PS-If you're looking for another documentary alternative to the blockbusters that's out at the moment, check out, 'Nostalgia for the light'-It's fantastic!

  • Comment number 6.

    I don't understand the problem with revelation in a documentary. One of the best films of all time, Dear Zachary, withholds crucial amounts of information, but for the purpose of allowing audiences to feel as deeply for its subjects as their friends did.

  • Comment number 7.

    After your recommendation I went to see this at the wonderful Showroom in Sheffield to a packed audience of five. As you and everyone else has said it's a mystery as to why he didn't get worldwide recognition, given the lyrical content of his songs and his striking voice.

    Who cares if the filmmakers 'withheld information' for dramatic purposes? It's a story very few people would have known about until now and it works in the film's favour to present it in that way.

    Beautifully shot, told in an engaging way, and has brought to my attention a fabulous singer songwriter, this has already beaten Senna as my favourite documentary of the past few years.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks for the spoiler at the very end!

  • Comment number 9.

    Sounds interesting (in the Anvil stock rather than the Spinal Tap). Certainly something I think I'd prefer to watch! Jesus Rodriguez: Superstar!!!

  • Comment number 10.

    Sounds interesting, I'm not sure I've seen it listed at all nearby which is a shame - this might be one of those I have to wait for a DVD before I get a chance to partake. But always nice to see there are alternatives.

  • Comment number 11.

    I am interested in checking out this film now; moreover, and I think this is a wonderful thing for this film to have achieved, I checked out Rodriquez' criminally neglected music and it's great. Without even seeing it yet, this film has introduced me to an artist I would never have known of otherwise.

  • Comment number 12.

    Sounds very similar to the story of 70s glam rocker Jobriath, who was touted as the American Bowie in the early 70s but then completely disappeared, dieing of AIDS in 1983. Another example of record companies injecting money into a machine to make someone a star only to drop him and literally send the poor guy into a deep depression when the numbers were not what they had hoped. Only difference was he DID want to be a star and his music was fairly forgettable.
    I honestly don't care much for music films. bands aren't very interesting to me, the worst i ever saw was Arena which followed Duran Duran on a US tour, all these girls going nuts over them and all they really were was a bunch of nancy boys with questionable talent. And don't get me started on Rattle & Hum...

  • Comment number 13.

    Documentaries have always manipulated the truth from the very beginning, going all the way back to Nanook of The North. The real question should be whether by doing so, they can uncover an even greater truth.

    I haven't seen Sugar Man yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so.

  • Comment number 14.

    The controversy I've heard is that he didn't drop into total obscurity and had some sucess in Australia and toured there in the mid 70's but then nothing until South Africa in 98. I don't think the concerts in Australia were on the same scale as SA. I was at his 1st gig in Johannesburg in 98 and he was truly overwelled at first by the reception he got from the 30 odd thousand crowd and it was a magical show. For 20 odd years he was out of the music business so it was genuinely a surprise to him to realise the scale of his popularity in SA. The truth may have been slightly bent but certainly nowhere near breaking point.

  • Comment number 15.

    *** may contain spoilers ***

    Having seen this film I agree that it was great. I don't thnk that the film makers misled per se but merely framed the film in a certain way. However, I do feel let down by this framing. The fact that Rodrigues had some success in Austrialia in the late 70s/early 80s and then disappeared again is quite interesting. It possibly says something about the man and his attitude toward fame or the music industry. However, we get none of this in the documentary. It becomes less a film about Rodrigues and more a film about a bunch of South African Rodrigues fans. In fact he doesn't actually say very much in the film at all.

    Like I said I liked it and I don't think the film makers were being dishonest. I remember watching The King of Kong and thinking it fantastic only to get home and discover that the film makers had left out certain key facts to make their story work. I was most disappointed.

  • Comment number 16.

    As has been observed, you could get all the information you might want to know from Wikipedia. The narrative created in some documentaries, whether artificially arrived at or not (for instance the "reenactments" in Project Nim), are frameworks on which the filmmakers can convey the same information but in a way that is entertaining, and may also provide insight. If obscurity is an interesting theme in the Rodriguez story, then it doesn't matter that he may not have been as perversely famous yet obscure as he seems to be from the South African perspective. No one would bat an eyelid if you made a documentary about how obscure some of the greatest figures in Asian cinema are in the West, so it's slightly asinine to suggest that a film that takes the point of view of his South African fans, telling the story of the mystery from their perspective, is somehow disingenuous. Not having seen it (yet) I don't know how well they square the truth by the end (crumbs, now I'll have to get out and see it, rather than lazily wait for it on video).

    From the few clips I've heard the music seems very much in the same well tilled furrows ploughed by other very talented, but similarly limited successes such as Patrick Sky (a particularly great album: Reality is Bad Enough), and better known but with heartbreaking lives such as Phil Ochs or Tim Buckley. Success in music is measured so differently now, and any musicians who can find an audience (and vice versa) through all the clutter should be pretty chuffed. Films like this can certainly help, but I wouldn't be surprised if it gives some cynical exec a bright idea to dredge his conglomerate's back catalog for acts they could "rescue" in the same fashion.

  • Comment number 17.

    Going to see Sugar Man next week as part of a documentary double bill after seeing the trailer and hearing your reviews Mark. I generally avoid blockbuster movies so am always looking for alternatives! The first part of the double bill is Ping Pong which I'm also eagerly anticipating. Already seen Nostalgia for the Light this week (see comment 5 above) and found it engrossing - in the same manner as Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The problem is that if you don't live near a good independent cinema, it can be very hard to see titles such as these on the big screen outside London.

  • Comment number 18.

    Am I allowed to note that it will be playing at the Showroom here in Sheffield in the very, very near future?

  • Comment number 19.

    I'd never heard of the chap, until the recent publicity about this film. I haven't seen the film yet, but I sought out his music, and, like many, I'm surprised he didn't make it big at the time. But then, he was Mexican, and the US has a history of being, shall we say 'cautious', of promoting non-white stars at that time.

    Whatever the reasons, his success now, if a little late, is surely deserved, and I look forward to checking out the film.

  • Comment number 20.

    Hey Mark love the blog. As a musician myself I may see this film. I have followed your blogs and critique for a long time. I don't even class myself as a film lover. I work in a Cinema and have not been to the "flicks" in over 5 years. I like the way you creatively criticise films and I particularly like comparing critics of different arts.

    I am only really writing to say that playing with your back to the audience, facing the wall, was very prevalent in the old blues records of the 1900-1930s. Robert Johnson was famed for it.

    The two standout reasons why are, So the audience can't see his finger tricks or something called corner loading. Corner loading is mainly used to record instruments and make them sound bigger than what they are. A variety of acoustic effects can be achieved. This may of or may not have worked in live performance situation.

    I am 99% certain it was not a statement about his art or "fame".

  • Comment number 21.

    Just my view, but regarding the other blog about 'do reviews matter?': I've seen several reviews of Searching For Sugar Man, generally positive, but for some reason I'm not motivated to go to see it. I'm glad you've decided to discuss it further, because most reviewers can't seem to decide whether this is an important story that must be told, or a shaggy dog story that just doesn't matter.

    The 'make up your own mind' attitude of some reviews is not only a total cop-out, it also makes me feel like my expectations are being lowered. I'm now suspicious that I will waste money going to see a film which can only amount to a cinematic shrug.

    I will go. Because I need to 'make up my own mind'. Pfft. If everybody said that, there wouldn't be any point to reviewing anything. That's not what reviews are for! Mumble, snort, etc., etc.

  • Comment number 22.

    I saw Searching for Sugarman a few days ago and loved it. Mark, thank you so much for your 5 Live review when you recommended people not to research the story before seeing the film. So I watched, not entirely sure (and never 100% certain) whether I was watching drama or documentary, or both. And I think it works supremely well whatever its genre.

    To me it is, of course, the story of a musician more connected with his music than with the public reception of it. It's also the story of South Africa in the 70s, and how isolated it was from the rest of the world. The film tells both of these stories with a gentle touch, greatly supported by the soundtrack.

  • Comment number 23.

    Really appreciate the shout-out for this. May miss it while away from civilization (!) but aim to catch it when I can. Last I was in the big smoke, I did pick up 7 Days In Havana down in Bermondsey in a great little cinema just off the B. high st. and really really enjoyed it, even if it was somewhat "the tourist version" of Havana!

    Also hunted down a copy of "Tokyo Sonata" which I am regretting having missed due to lack of opportunity when it was on at the cinemas. What a brilliant film. I was reeling after watching this. Fortunately I've visited Tokyo (during a bad time) and the feeling of internalised pressure yet stoic response of the Japanese - wow.

    Next on the list, Tarkovsky's Solaris, which also was hunted down from a nearby library collection for a few dollars: What a collection they have! It was certainly a rarity to find foreign films in out of the way places, a decade or so ago.

    So these will keep me content. I dabbled with the consideration to watch Batman, but will wait until it is on dvd. Too many good gems to catch up on.

  • Comment number 24.

    Mark, in a way same genre as Julien Temple's Oil City Confidential...

  • Comment number 25.

    I saw this movie earlier tonight and am listening to "ColdFact" on the headphones as I have done many times over the past 40 years. I was a Capetonian until 25 and spent my 70's teenage years much as the film depicted. The music & archive footage really brought a tear to my eye. I wasn't in the movie (not surprising to say), but I felt that there was something of me, a bit of my youth, in there. It's now "trapped in birth on celluloid".

    I'll leave criticism of the film to those further from to subject, but, even knowing the story & therefore missing out on the 'manufactured' suspense of the dramatic trajectory, I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary. Please see it and buy "ColdFact" it is seriously good.

  • Comment number 26.

    I've just listened to the review of this film in the podcast. I came across this artist a few years ago via a sample of 'Sugarman' on a David Holmes album. Until i heard the podcast, I had no clue that he had not had a successful career. I'm enjoying the music all over again and can't wait to see the film. Thanks Mark for reviewing this film which, like his musical career, could have easily slipped under the radar.

  • Comment number 27.

    Umm, sorry to seem a bit dim, but if this dude set himself on fire and committed suicide on stage...surely he would have had thousands and thousands of witnesses? Witnesses called 'the audience'...This is so dumb.

  • Comment number 28.

    Looks like the docu hit home: Sixto Rodriguez: the Sugar Man returns


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