'Searching for Sugar Man' plays this weekend at the Normal Theater (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
By Dawn Riordan
Sometimes a documentary film can be taxing... an audio visual barrage of facts and opinions thrown at you from what feels like an unforgiving screen. Watching one of these is work; your brain has to be totally engaged in ‘learning mode’ and you feel compelled to take notes. We don’t show these kinds of documentaries at the Normal Theater because we want you to be entertained while we secretly fill you with informative facts and figures about subjects you may have never even known were in existence. It’s what sets us apart from the commercial cinemas, which don’t really care if you learn anything, just so you pay the price of the medium popcorn in full – or with approved credit.
We prefer our documentaries to be mesmerizing, transporting you into a world you didn’t know existed. Witness what we have on the screen this weekend – the very thing to enlighten and entertain without any note-taking or high-priced snack items.
The film is called ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and it is very good. If you care to get a second opinion before seeing it, ask Oscar – yes, THAT Oscar – who gave this film the Academy Award for Best Feature-length Documentary this past awards season. The movie is that good.
The story is simple – it seems back in the 70s, a Detroit songwriter/folk singer who went by the single name of Rodriguez made a couple of albums that sold modestly but never achieved the greatness necessary to become a household name. After a few years of playing clubs and small venues, he disappeared off the music scene. It was rumored that during his last gig, he sang a song about endings, then shot himself on stage.
Zoom forward to the mid 1990s and travel around the world to South Africa. Apartheid is in full bloom, discontent is the social way – and the music of Rodriguez was discovered and accepted to the mood of those who were tired of the politics. His two albums were re-released and quickly became million sellers. In South Africa, Rodriguez was now bigger than Elvis.
Enter our film maker and a record store owner, both fans of Rodriguez, who decide to find out more about the man whose music speaks to them but whose life is a total mystery. Searching for clues in album liner notes and through people who produced his recordings – these fans seek to find out the true story. Did he kill himself as reported? Did he even really exist? When did he die?
We shouldn’t really care. After all Rodriguez never became famous. Back in the 70s he was just another songster trying to break into show biz, right? Well, yes, except throughout the film, you see the people involved in his supposed career are some heavy hitters – people who also worked alongside of Quincy Jones, and most of the high profile entertainers of the late 60s, early 70s such as The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Linda Ronstadt. This was Detroit, after all, land of Motown.
The movie plays out like a mystery – putting evidence together to solve a puzzle. We hear the songs – oh, they’re good. Rodriguez sounds like Dylan with a bit of James Taylor and Jose Feliciano thrown in. His lyrics are meaningful; they are a bit progressive for the early 70s – which may be why he never got into the mainstream. Nevertheless, this mystery movie unfolds in a very entertaining way. Without giving away anything, the movie creates an unexpected but delightful story of hope throughout that gives the viewer a good feeling about the possibilities of our world – a message that giving up or giving in is not always the best option. This might be why the film won the Oscar – few movies do that for us these days; even comedies can end in an upset in a world where entertainment skew towards people’s failures and foibles.
If you want to see an Oscar winning documentary about an obscure songwriter whose story can fill you with hope – you must see ‘Searching for Sugar Man’. You can see it on the big screen this weekend at the Normal Theater, showing Thursday through Sunday (March 28-31) at 7 pm each evening. Bring a dollar for popcorn and leave the notebook at home.