There is a good reason as to why Malik Bendjelloul's documentary on the rediscovery of lost 1970s Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez has become such a feel-good hit. It's the real-life version of an inspirational Hollywood story, with our hero overcoming adversity and injustice through a somewhat miraculous and entirely unexpected set of circumstances, all the more remarkable for being absolutely true. And Mr. Bendjelloul does it in shameless fan mode, as an admirer of the man and his music who knows that this true story too good to be true just has to be seen and spread to be believed. So spread it he does, in a carefully pieced together film that weaves its spell efficiently while leaving out informations irrelevant to the story at hand (such as Mr. Rodriguez's Australian popularity), in a knowing, cautious realisation of the legendary concept behind John Ford's classic The Man who Shot Liberty Valance: print the legend.

     The legend, granted, is not that different from the real story: a singer-songwriter whose sole two US albums bombed becomes, through word-of-mouth, a million-selling star in mid-1970s, apartheid-era South Africa, while being reported dead or missing; two decades later, two South African fans launched an investigation to find the truth. Mr. Rodriguez's actual rediscovery took place in the late 1990s, over a decade before Mr. Bendjelloul's film, so we are not following the investigation in real time (neither does the film pretend otherwise), but Searching for Sugar Man retraces the search in such a cheerful, uplifting way that it sweeps you along in its stranger-than-fiction storytelling. The director is clearly more concerned with giving its still-humble, still working-class star his due and making sure he gets another second wind - and an entirely deserved one, since the songs are truly remarkable and its absence of recognition at the time head-scratchingly inexplicable.

     Rock documentaries are traditionally a mixed bunch, but this is a tightly-paced, more interesting and more intriguing entry than most of its comrades. It is also a testament to the underlying strength of the story and to Mr. Bendjelloul's approach of keeping it grounded in the human element and maintaining the fans front and center throughout. This is, after all, a film that confirms just how much music is in the hands of the fans, and by placing the story square on the shoulders of the fans, it introduces a dimension in the documentary genre that is usually left out: that of the connection of its subject to real people, to those it is about and to those it talks to.

Director, writer and editor: Malik Bendjelloul
Cinematography: Camille Skågerström  (colour)
Producers: Simon Chinn, Mr. Bendjelloul (Red Box Films and Passion Pictures in association with Canfield Pictures, The Documentary Company and Hysteria Film)
United Kingdom/Sweden, 2012, 86 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, January 24th 2013


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