The first is the fairly standard one where you go in as a fan of the band and know, at least, sections of their story (for me this includes last year’s Marley as well as likes of Oil City Confidential and The Filth And The Fury, though these last two being directed by Julien Temple puts them into a different place for me, but that’s a blog for another day).
The other sort of music documentary is the sort where you know nothing about the music or the artists involved going in, but are watching because you have heard about the film. For me the latter was the case for Searching For Sugar Man.
The film starts on a coastal road near Cape Town in South Africa with former jeweler, sometime soldier, and now record store owner Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman listening to an album called Cold Fact by a man called Rodriquez and explaining how his nickname was inspired by the album and how this was as big as Bridge Over Troubled Water or The White Album in South Africa throughout the 70s.
From there we get a fascinating story of Sugar and, latterly, journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom’s search for Rodriquez – a man rumoured to have died on stage one of several horrific ways.
Most of this story takes place across the 1990s and brings to mind the fact that this is very much a pre-internet tale – today a quick Google search for even the most obscure artists will normally come back with at least a basic biography and discography, but, back then, all these two men had were the record sleeves for the two albums they knew existed.
As well as the idea of the pre-wiki world the story told by Searching For Sugar Man is one that really highlights the power that art (and specifically music) can have over people’s lives.
I will save the details of Rodriquez himself that are revealed, for fear of spoilers, but it becomes clear that both Segerman and Strydom’s lives were drastically changed by their quest which is based purely on a passion for an album released in 1970 which was triggered by a series of chance events.
As well as the personal effect many of the talking heads that appear, predominantly white South Africans, are adamant that without music like that of Rodriquez which came to them despite a heavily censored media, many wouldn’t have stood up to their government and, in their own ways at various levels, help over throw the apartheid system.
Away from the politics and the personal stories this is, of course, a film about music and that comes across with some excellent little snippets of Rodriquez’ work with some music video-like sequences giving us some great views of Detroit (you’ll find out why if you watch the film) that evoke both a personal view of the city and the larger decaying industrial landscape it has become famous for.
I may not have seen many documentaries over the past 12 months but I have to say this is up there with the most interesting stories I’ve seen told in a music documentary in a long time and, while not as stylistically flamboyant as the aforementioned Temple’s work, still has a certain flair of its own and does what I think all good music documentaries should do – it made me want to listen to the music.