Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Although I think it's best to watch this documentary knowing as little as possible about the subject matter, I can't resist telling you the hook: it's the story of a mysterious American musician named Rodriguez who achieved a tiny amount of exposure in the US in the late 1960s/early 1970s. His sound is similar to Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters of the time, but he is no imitator or wanna-be; he is clearly a very skilled musician and songwriter in his own right.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez never achieved much attention despite this talent, and after a couple of modest albums, he faded away into obscurity...
...in America, anyway. Unbeknownst to him, he was becoming incredibly popular in South Africa, his songs an inspiration to people working in the anti-apartheid movement. He was an influence for many of the prominent anti-apartheid musicians at the time. But despite his popularity, people knew very little about Rodriguez, and he remained a mystery to many of his biggest fans.
The film follows the journey that a couple of South African music journalists and fans took to discover who Rodriguez really was and what had happened to him. (Hint: the arrival of the internet helped.)
The movie's cinematography is very well-done: the film is gritty and beautiful at the same
time, and manages to incorporate archival footage in a way that feels natural. And although we rarely hear his voice, Bendjelloul is clearly a
good interviewer, coaxing out fascinating details and sometimes surprisingly
articulate insight from his subjects. And although this is a documentary, the story unfolds like a fictional narrative, with plenty of suspense. The filmmakers have an excellent sense of pacing and structure, and there is not a single wasted minute. Whether we are learning about the censorship and brutality of apartheid in South Africa, or watching Rodriguez' old friends and colleagues talk about his talent, there is a sense that everything fits together into the narrative. It all seems to fall into place as it is meant to. I won't give away any more of what happens, because the movie is such a joy to experience as it unfolds.
I would recommend this to anyone who likes a good mystery, is interested in South Africa of the 1970s, or likes good music. In fact, it's worth watching for Rodriguez' soundtrack alone.