Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Recently successful documentaries have started to raise a few questions regarding the issue of integrity versus entertainment. Isn’t it a documentary’s first and foremost job to give an accurate as possible portrayal of its subjects events? Well, not so any more it would seem. The modern documentary maker is far more concerned with applying narrative structure full of suspense and twists which will keep the viewer hooked and provide a powerful emotional climax to a story which may not necessarily need one.
Of course interpretations and different recollections will always distort the presentation of events. Agenda’s will creep in to the various contributions, and certain subtle edits will be made to highlight the directors own opinions and cinematic objectives. But surely there is a tacit understanding that the basic elements of a story are to be disclosed?
Yet more and more documentary’s are beginning to resemble their fictional biopic counterparts with flashy editing and narrative structure taking precedence over the trivialities of reality. Whether this is the right way to go or not, it is certainly paying off from a success standpoint. Along with recent films like Sena and the Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man has met with widespread acclaim based entirely on its emotional impact with little concern to the objections of those suggesting it might all be based on utter bollocks.
But while the credits still role and you reach for the laptop – hoping it will disguise the choking back of the tears – some brief research quickly reveals that Sugar Man has in fact played loosely with the truth in order to manufacture its pivotal dramatic reveal. There arent exactly any outright lies but some very important omissions, along with a quite obvious plot set up at the very beginning.
Which is all a bit of a shame really given that behind all this unnecessary manipulation still lies a fascinating story of a humble underdog who narrowly missed out on the success and recognition he probably deserved.
Rodriguez “the Sugar Man” was a hispanic folk rock singer songwriter hotly tipped by two people with dubious credentials to rise to the top and stand alongside the greats of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Dave Grohl. But owing to his crippling shyness, some dodgy record industry management, and the cruel indifference of 1970s materialist hippies, the glitter and riches of success would remain forever out of his reach. Or would it?
The narrative manipulation employed to raise what really is a simple tale into a folk legend is misguided. Though initially entertaining to those going in with no prior knowledge (which is just about everyone) it inevitably backfires leaving an unshakable sense of being cheated.
Luckily there is still plenty of the real story to enjoy (providing you are not the kind of bitterly twisted pedant type) and no amount of short sighted myth making can take away from the natural charm and sweetness of the subject himself. Though barely able to contribute anything of substance to the material owing to his own shyness, coupled with the glaring lack of archive footage to draw upon, Rodriguez’s humble misadventure and the peculiar and unexpected turn of events are undoubtedly a welcome antidote to the ridiculous gravitas usually awarded to the successful rock legends. Through it all his own subtle charisma and uncorrupted outlook provide all the emotional string pulling the story requires.
Unfortunately this leaves a lot of the film devoted to the mystery and suspense as we follow a small group of die hard fans from South Africa who team together to uncover what happened to their hero. A lot of time is spent establishing the political and cultural isolation of South Africa and trying to give some credence to the lack of information on Rodriguez available to the crack team . Through some good old fashioned investigation utilising phone calls and internet message boards they slowly uncover the truth behind the bizarre rumours and legends surrounding the mans fate. If only they had thought to do a quick google search.
The small issue of full disclosure aside the story is well put together and if you can accept it as partial fiction for the sake of a gripping story it is undeniably a good ride while it lasts.
Whether there is any truth to his having unjustly missed out on a place in rock history is debatable as much as the film tries to convince – you’ll just have to listen to his music and decide for yourself. But there are undoubtedly one or two great songs to be discovered.
As for the future of the documentary in general, Searching for Sugar Man further pushes the boundaries for imaginary plot threads and big impact reveals which only frustrate once the mundane reality is immediately discovered.
As things continue documentaries will soon be starting with the “based on a true story” disclaimer.