Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man, which won Best Documentary Feature at last night's Academy Awards, is a puff piece that exists to deify its subject, Sixto Díaz Rodríguez. It is less a documentary than a montage of fawning over this American folk musician who released two albums in the early '70s, only to be ignored and then rediscovered by South Africa. We hear that he was bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones there, that he moved 500,000 copies of his debut Cold Fact there, that he's "like a wise man prophet" with "a genuine quality that all poets and artists have to elevate things." Someone says, "Bob Dylan was mild [compared] to this guy."
Based on evidence in the movie his music seems...OK? Not quite the no-brainer star-making stuff that the film is bent on persuading you it is. So much of Sugar Man's exposition is subjective. Even the 500,000 sales figure is delivered as an estimate from one talking head and then presented as the truth for the rest of the film. It's all meant to manipulate the viewer into incredulousness: How could an artist so perfect have gone ignored in America? Surely we live in a world that delivers rewards to all who are talented and deserving.
Rodríguez's frequently underscored humility only makes him more god-like. One of his daughters tells the story of him refusing to sleep on a king size bed when he finally made his heralded way over to South Africa to play a show ("He didn't think someone should have to make a bed because he messed it up"). Another chokes back tears as she tells of his work as a day-laborer that would find him coming home covered in paint chips or at work, carrying refrigerators on his back. One of his colleagues with a particular flair for drama says Rodríguez approached this work, which he took up after he was dropped from his label after the release of his second album, as "a sacrament."
All that Searching for Sugar Man reveals is obvious: not every appreciated person is appreciated sufficiently. And the record industry screws people over. Rodríguez apparently received no profits from his South African sales and the former owner of his record label starts cursing when questioned in what must be the rawest footage here. The people of South Africa actually believed an urban legend that Rodríguez killed himself onstage after getting a poor reception; they were later shocked to find out that he was still alive, as is revealed midway through the movie right after a journalist dictates how you should feel about what you're about to see: "The best part was still to come."
"That sort of thing does not happen in the natural universe. It's against the laws of god and nature," exaggerates journalist Rian Malan on Rodríguez's resurrection. And just in case you still don't know how to feel by the end, after Rodríguez is discovered, flown out to South Africa to play a triumphant show, there is commentary from one of his daughters: "It is a grandiose story. It sounds like something you'd make up if you were bragging on some dream or something." Who needs a review when this movie reviews itself for you?
Searching for Sugar Man's presentation of Rodríguez feels dishonest even before you investigate what was left out: A tour of Australia in the late '70s with Midnight Oil that led to a live Rodríguez album. Including that fact, of course, would have made his resurgence of popularity about a decade later seem less special. Though we hear from his children, we never learn of the women Rodríguez made them with. Why? A lack of time or would exploring his relationship(s) have somehow made him seem less perfect? No one, no one, has anything less than fawning praise for this guy. This is a news magazine segment stretched out to a feature-length EPK. It believes that the most important things are fame and fortune and that people are entitled to them. Every shred of potentially interesting cultural information, such as Rodríguez's outspoken politics providing an outlet to whites who were against apartheid but lived in fear of their government to do anything about it, is glossed over to get to more fawning. In the end, this is a celebration of someone whose music simply failed to connect with its intended audience but found another. In this regard, Rebecca Black is a fascinating person. Where's the documentary about David Hasselhoff's supposed musical success in Germany?
That is not to say that Searching for Sugar Man's Oscars victory is surprising. It isn't. I know people like having their spirits massaged, their heartstrings plucked, their minds made up for them. I know that the Oscars are mostly meaningless trophies that come wrapped up in politics. I know that crying about another film not getting its due is not unlike the whining Bendjelloul et. al. do in Sugar Man regarding Rodríguez's obscurity. However, it is clear to me that How To Survive a Plague, a masterful patchwork of hundreds of hours of archival footage and new interviews that was also nominated for the Best Documentary Feature award, was robbed.
David France's documentary works like an actual documentary as it presents a balanced view of its subject, the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. In Plague, we see that ACT UP was flawed, disorganized, prone to disruptive behavior and capable of being completely, detrimentally wrong. It respects you enough as a viewer to decide when you think the people of ACT UP went too far in their attention-grabbing displays. The film achieves the unlikely task of creating an ultimately uplifting story about AIDS' so-called plague year by relating how a subjugated group of people — gay men in the '80s and '90s — saved themselves (along with a slew of allies) from extinction.
True objectivity doesn't exist and certainly Plague is a tribute, but where filmmaking and reporting are concerned this movie is infinitely more sophisticated than Sugar Man. Where storytelling is concerned, Plague is human story, not a fairy tale, and it's all the more amazing as a result.