In the wake of its win for Best Documentary at this year's Oscars, it was hard not to notice some grousing about Searching for Sugar Man. This is to be expected on Oscar night, I suppose, but I felt the criticism was particularly harsh. The subject was shallow and unserious next to the other nominees, Sixto Rodriguez and overrated and unimportant footnote in music history. Unless you have a problem with folk music and awe-inspiring proof that the world really is smaller than you think, I don't understand how anyone can watch this film and actually feel that way.
Sugar Man draws its names from a song of the same name by a rock-god-that-never-was. With the help of some Motown heavyweights (Mike Theodore, Clarence Avant, etc.), Rodriguez released two albums in the early 1970s to little fanfare in the U.S. and then faded in to musical oblivion.
Only he didn't in South Africa, where, unbeknownst to anyone stateside, his records sold and sold and sold for decades, his songs becoming anthems for young Afrikaners opposed to apartheid. Rodriguez became a mythical figure in South Africa, with rumors abounding about him but little hard information to go on in a country isolated almost completely from the West because of the racist policies of its government. Back in Detroit, Rodriguez went on with his strange-but-true life, working odd, taxing jobs to provide for his family and letting his stalled musical career fade away until someone from South Africa finally connected with him after the end of apartheid.
Searching for Sugar Man is a simply mind-blowing story in its own right -- equal parts mystery and romance. But what I really loved about it was the overwhelming realization that this sort of thing could have only happened at this exact time in human history -- before the rise of the Internet, before the end of apartheid, before the total decentralization of the music industry. There are no more singing messiahs -- Elvis Presleys or John Lennons that can unite an entire generation -- in the record business. Even if there were, there's no way they could be isolated from their fans for decades -- a few keystrokes at a search engine rendering this sort of phenomenon unfathomable now.
I'm not saying that with any sort of wistfulness. The world has moved on. Just because it has doesn't mean we shouldn't look back in wonder on occasion.