Saturday, March 2, 2013

Paragraph Movie Reviews: Searching for Sugar Man

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

This documentary about Rodriguez, a relatively unknown would-be 70's rock star from Detroit, kicks off with a South African man talking about how this cipher is one of the best-selling and most influential musicians of all time in his homeland, but remains shrouded in mystery aside from rumors about how his career ended: with the artist lighting himself on fire and perishing during a live performance. With a hook like that, it's impossible not to immediately want to know more, and writer/director/producer Malik Bendjelloul does a great job peppering his work with cliffhangers and payoffs to keep the viewer riveted. The story of Rodriguez is a unique and incredible one, and, trying not to give too much away (though that's going to be tough) ends up being far more uplifting than the open would suggest. I will say that Watching for Sugar Man simply as a standalone piece I enjoyed it without much question, but after it won the Academy Award and was proclaimed the best documentary of the year, I did question a bit more about how good a job Bendjelloul and his collaborators really did and how much was just them getting compelling subject matter that did a lot of the work itself. The interviews Bendjelloul conducts are well-done and don't pull punches, but also seem to suggest that a lot of the leg work for the piece was done a decade earlier by South African fans and journalists, it's just being brought to light now; I certainly don't fault a filmmaker for happening upon great discoveries like that, but again, the success of the finished product opens it up to greater scrutiny. The graphics used for transitions and scene setting are a mixed bag, as some really caught my eye and stood out more than usual on a documentary, but on the flip side, others were distracting. If I find particular fault with anybody, I guess it would be cinematographer Camilla Skagerstrom, whose love for lengthy tracking shots of Detroit streets I don't share. I do think the whole thing was well-paced and, as I noted above, knows when to place the next hook, even if the focus can scatter. Also, it goes without saying that the soundtrack, taken completely from Rodriguez's catalog, is outstanding; the guy really was great. Even after applying the "did it deserve to be the best?" filter, I find I still really enjoyed Searching for Sugar Man; it's one thing to happen upon a great documentary subject, it's another to keep it compelling for even 86 minutes.