Frankly - I blame Michael Moore. Since the turn of the century, documentaries have become big business at the box office. When Fahrenheit 9/11 exploded onto screens across the country in 2004 and raked in upwards of $100 million in ticket sales, Hollywood took sharp notice.
Unfortunately (or not, depending on your view), this set something of a template for future documentaries to come. More often than not, watching a documentary is akin to attending a lecture. If made well, a documentary can be a powerful medium to call attention to savage injustices, political corruption, sex scandals, environmental concerns, bad business practices, historical accounts and revelations, etc. This is all well, good, and necessary.
In 2008, a documentary called Man on Wire, about the man who walked on a high wire between the Twin Towers in New York, helped change things a little. Framed as a heist film, the doc incorporated staged footage with actual footage to create a highly suspenseful yarn about a man obsessed with attempting the impossible and refocused the attention to the story, rather than the message. Man on Wire went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, and I urge you to go to the video store and pick it up. At the time of this writing, it’s currently available on Netflix Streaming. Worth your time.
Also worth your time, and also up for an Oscar this year, is Searching For Sugar Man.
For what it’s worth, it’s also produced by the same man who produced Man on Wire.
Searching For Sugar Man is framed as a detective story and tells a tale that gets more and more incredible with each new discovery, twist and revelation. It’s the sort of story that’s so fantastical, you’d be hard pressed to believe it ever happened. Except it did.
In South Africa, during the 1970’s, a music artist known only as Rodriguez gained immense popularity as a sort of modern day Bob Dylan. His songs and lyrics helped an entire generation of South Africans grapple with apartheid and political unrest in a manner that sparked a youthful musical movement. A censorship push by the government to keep Rodriguez’s music from the airways only increased his popularity.
By the end of the 80’s, Rodriguez was bigger in South Africa than Elvis or The Rolling Stones.
But who was he? A popular urban legend maintained Rodriguez had committed suicide while playing a gig by either setting himself on fire, or shooting himself on stage. A couple of fans wondered, “which was it?”, and so set off to find some answers and maybe learn a little bit about the elusive artist and set some things straight. What they found stunned an entire nation of music fans, and altered the life of a quiet construction worker in Detroit, Michigan. Here is the trailer.
Searching For Sugar Man is a timely reminder that fact can still be more powerful than fiction, that dreams can still be realized years after being left for dead, and that humility and grace still triumph in an age of excess.
Get’cher self to your local video store and see this heartwarming film. Tonight, if possible.