A couple of years ago a documentary called “Exit Through the Gift Shop” came out, and then it was revealed that almost the whole thing was a hoax. (It was still a pretty entertaining film.) This year, “Searching for Sugar Man” won the Best Documentary Oscar, and as far as I know, it isn’t a hoax. But if it were revealed, at some later date, to be a made up (or at least trumped up) story, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
It’s the story of a musician named Rodriguez who made a few records in Detroit in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but never managed to sell anything or gain any kind of reputation here in the States. Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul finds studio execs and producers who attest that Rodriguez was ridiculously talented and writing amazing songs, one even calls him “better than Dylan.” They are completely befuzzled as to why he never caught on. I guess that’s just the way the industry goes.
The problem is, the soundtrack is filled with Rodriguez’ actual songs, and so we get to hear and judge them for ourselves. They’re not better than Dylan. In fact, more than one of them clearly ape Dylan. The title of the documentary gets its name from a song that is painfully trying to be “Mr. Tambourine Man.” They’re not bad; Rodriguez kind of sounds like a cross between Nick Drake and Barry McGuire, and that means he’s certainly better than a lot of musicians who have gotten a lot more attention. But that’s just the first example of the filmmakers seemingly trying to make this documentary bigger and more dramatic than the story actually is. It feels like they’re stretching.
Which is too bad, because I feel like if they’d just stuck to the facts, this still would be a remarkable story. Rodriguez, unbeknownst to himself or apparently anyone else this side of the Atlantic Ocean, became a folk rock god in apartheid South Africa, as big as the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. When Benjelloul interviews the label exec who owned Rodriguez’ contract, he switches from bemused mentor (“he had such soul…I wish we could’ve done more for him) to intimidating businessman (“who the F*** do you think you are, coming in here and asking me that?”) when Benjelloul presses him on the subject of the royalties that must have been pouring in from overseas sales.
And so the filmmakers, and some South African superfans, set out to find Rodriguez (everyone had thought he was dead) and bring him to South Africa for a big tour. And this is where the credibility just stretches too thin to believe. I just don’t buy that he was all that hard to find; he’s not trying to stay hidden. But these terrible detectives are putting his face on milk cartons and scouring his lyrics for obscure references to possible locations (“he sang about London, so I went to London to see if he was there.”) before it ever occurs to them to contact the producer of the record. Come on, seriously? Contacting the people who worked on his records wasn’t the first thing you tried? You traveled to LONDON before telephoning his producer? You get the feeling that they’re not finding him because they want him to be hard to find; because putting the picture of a long lost rock star on a milk carton makes for a better documentary than just saying, “well, we called his producer, and he had his phone number.”
The film ends with a satisfying tour, and it’s fun to see this sixty something guy who thought nobody had ever listened to his records get lots of attention and acclaim. He seems very grounded, and down to earth, and I hope he has lots of success as a result of this documentary’s Oscar win. But in the long run, he deserved a better, less histrionic film than this one. And I’m sure there are documentaries more deserving of Oscar attention out there, as well.