All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Country: Sweden/United Kingdom
A man as good as he is talented and equally as enigmatic. An artist exiled to obscurity, said to have perished before learning that, a world away, he had been triumphant, lost to those who had most completely embraced him and then, as if miraculously, resurrected and brought forth to claim the adulation that had always been there waiting for him. It’s a story so incredible that it seems unbelievable (and, according to some critics, is unbelievable), the sort of feel good, triumph from tragedy story that seems like it could only exist in fiction and yet, according to Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man, exists in reality. A highly entertaining and often moving film, Searching for Sugar Man is one of the best and most purely entertaining films in recent years.
In terms of story construction, Bendjelloul presents Searching for Sugar Man at first as a mystery, unfolding it (with no small amount of assistance from cinematographer Camilla Skagerstrom and her atmospheric visual compositions) as a ghost story. At the center is Rodriguez, a singer/songwriter from Detroit with two albums to his credit, both of which were critically acclaimed but failed to sell in the United States. After being dropped from his label, he’s said to have disappeared from the music scene and rumors of his death ranged from extraordinary claims of self-immolation on stage to more commonplace claims that he died of a drug overdose. That alone would make his a tragic story, if not necessarily a remarkable one, but there’s another twist which makes it cut just a little bit deeper: though unrecognized and unheralded in the United States, his music found an audience in South Africa where his two albums went gold several times over and helped fuel the anti-Apartheid movement – but he didn’t live to see or enjoy it. As the film begins, it is the story of how two South African men, journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom and record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, sought to uncover the truth about Rodriguez’s demise. However, as the film reaches the mid-way point, the perspective shifts and the revelation of what became of the mysterious artist known as Rodriguez results in the transfer of the narrative from the outsiders searching for him to the man himself.
From the outset, Bendjelloul establishes Rodriguez in mythological terms, introducing him with a recreated scene showing him playing in a smoke filled room with his back to the audience. As the story carries on he remains something of an enigma, a man who seems almost saintly in Searching for Sugar Man’s telling and who remains a bit of a question mark even at the end. Since the release of the film there have been articles written questioning the veracity of the film’s tale and, in particular, the legend that Rodriguez was thought long dead (not mentioned in the film is the fact that Rodriguez toured Australia in the 1980s, which is one of the main sticking points of Searching for Sugar Man “truthers”). I’m not going to argue one way or another about how much of what the film presents is really true because I’m not sure that it actually matters whether this is the full and unfettered truth or if it is a more elusive type of truth, the kind of truth that can be presented in songs where the writer’s expression of their experience can have a sort of spiritual truth without relating the full, literal truth. Searching for Sugar Man tells a great story and tells it very well – that’s what films ought to do. One might argue that the ambiguities in the film make it a failure as a documentary, particularly in terms of how it brings up certain questions, such as what ever became of the money made in South Africa through the sale of the albums, which Rodriguez certainly didn't see but must have made someone a little bit rich, and then leaves those questions hanging in the air. However, some questions don't necessarily need to be directly answered and spelled out (what became of the money seems obvious from an interview with an intensely defensive former record company owner), and no documentary is free of bias or construction, or can really be said to present anything more than a “version” of the truth no matter how convincingly that version is argued. I don't think you have to entirely believe what Searching for Sugar Man is telling you in order to enjoy it; it can be embraced simply as a story told to wonderful effect.
Another reason why the factual truth doesn’t fully matter is that, in the film’s very formation, Bendjelloul makes Searching for Sugar Man as much an appreciation of Rodriguez as an exploration/creation of the Rodriguez mythology. The music that Rodriguez made, both from the two albums he released and from a third, unfinished album, features prominently throughout Searching for Sugar Man with the narrative pausing at certain points for little vignettes akin to music videos, and in some respects the actual story at times feels like an elaborate way to connect one song to the next on the soundtrack (and, in fact, Bartholomew and Segerman describe examining the lyrics of the songs as part of their search for clues about who Rodriguez was, where he was from, and what may have happened to him). The film begins almost like a detective story, but it quickly becomes is a musical odyssey and, like many odysseys, it may have become slightly more fantastic in the retelling, but it’s still a captivating and ultimately uplifting tale. It’s a film with great visual flair, a compelling narrative, a soundtrack that will reverberate through your mind, and a protagonist that you absolutely have to see to believe. Whatever facts may have been fudged or obscured, one thing is definitely true: Searching for Sugar Man is a gem of a film.