If a Hollywood producer had thought up the story for Searching for Sugar Man, we would be roaring in indignation at such shameless concoction. But it isn't made up. One of the strangest films of the year is a documentary.
It opens as a music-lover's mystery yarn. The timeline starts in Detroit in the late sixties, when two experienced music producers discovered Rodriguez, an American-Mexican folk singer and guitarist, a "Chicano Bob Dylan" drawing on personal experience of life in one of America's most impoverished cities. They produced his first album, Cold Fact, convinced it would be a hit. Nobody bought it.
After the similar, outright flop of his second album, Rodriguez returned to obscurity, so much so that rumours abounded of his onstage suicide. Meanwhile, across the world in South Africa, bootlegging and enthusiastic word of mouth turned Cold Fact into a massive hit. Here, Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis; more than that, his sad, bitter but lyrical anti-Establishment songs became the inspiration for a generation of young, white liberals in their opposition to Apartheid.
While no-one in South Africa had any idea who Rodriguez was, they did assume he was just as famous in the US. The cultural bubble imposed by Apartheid sealed their illusion tight. Then, in the mid-Nineties, a record shop owner and a journalist decided to put some biography to the legend. What they learned was more than a little surprising.
Director Malik Bendjelloul has set himself a difficult task, because the optimum impact of his story relies on his audience – many of whom will be music buffs – being as much in the dark about Rodriguez as were the South Africans. He clearly decided to play the mystery to the full, so I'm not going to spoil the party by revealing anything more.
Bendjelloul skilfully combines talking heads and archive, throwing in a nicely-drawn animation sequence and a generous number of the songs, which are, thankfully, quite special. The musician's enigma, magnified by urban myth and censorship, is captured very well indeed. The ardent fandom may be a little too quaint at times, but the overall result is captivating.
Where the director does fall short is in not exploring the reasons for Rodriguez's failure at home, one likely reason being his roots – Latinos simply didn't feature in the charts in the sixties and seventies. The film would be far richer if it explored the irony of the singer's own experience of racial discrimination, neatly summed up by the slogan: "American zero, South African hero".
In contrast to Searching for Sugar Man, everything about The Man Inside feels dully familiar. This is yet another story of a man trying to escape a circle of violence, without the good sense to simply leave the environment that's tormenting him.
Amateur boxer Clayton (Ashley Thomas) is haunted by memories of his abusive and probably psychopathic father, while pestered daily by the knife-wielding hoodie with designs on his sister. The lad is a powder keg. His predicament should be dramatic, but it's weighed down by earnestness, its sincerity unmatched by subtlety or art. Thomas takes the pained introversion so far that we want to slap him; Peter Mullan is his normal, reliable self as a sympathetic boxing coach.
Contextual targeting label: