Sundance: The Electrifying Search for Sugar Man

Rodriguez in ‘Searching for Sugar Man.’

And we’re off! Yesterday afternoon, Sony Pictures Classics announced the first real acquisition of the festival: the crowd-pleasing rock-and-roll redemption documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, which Vulture happened to catch that day at a truly insane screening. In other acquisitions news, Joachim Trier’s festival mainstay Oslo, August 31 got a U.S. distributor, and soon after the Sugar Man announcement, Magnolia Pictures picked up The Queen of Versailles. But back to that insane screening!

Audiences at 9 a.m. are supposed to be grumpy and in desperate need of caffeine, but as the lights went up on Sugar Man, everyone in the theater rose to their feet. This happened three more times. Many present, including Vulture, were in tears. “There can’t be any other movie that’s possibly better than that. I’m going to stop seeing movies for the rest of the festival,” we overheard one woman say. Said another, “That alone was reason enough to come to Sundance.” If there was any doubt that the Sundance organizers were right in predicting that this will be the Audience Award winner, it’s now gone.

There’s no way to talk about what happened next at that screening without revealing a major SPOILER, so stop reading if you care about these things. The movie, from Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, is about Rodriguez, a seventies rock icon who wasn’t. He recorded two critically acclaimed Dylan-esque albums about hard times and ordinary folks in Detroit, where he lived a humble life as a roofer. Both flopped in the U.S., but thanks to bootlegging, he’d become a superstar on par with Elvis and the Beatles in South Africa, where his oft-censored, fight-the-Establishment songs became anthems of the anti-Apartheid movement. Tragically, Rodriguez never knew this, and all that his legions of South African fans knew of him was that he’d committed suicide shortly after the failure of his second album by going onstage and lighting himself on fire, or shooting himself in the head. This movie follows the dogged efforts of two of those South African fans to track down more information about their idol, and in particular, find out how he’d died.

That’s just the start of the saga, and again, not to SPOIL anything, but the final standing ovation of the morning was for Rodriguez himself, who’d flown in from Detroit; those fans had found him there, having given up on music and working in construction. If you’ve never understood those girls who screamed for the Beatles, you would have understood them in this moment. In Vulture’s case, hysterical screeches of excitement flew out of our mouth involuntarily, and this for a musician we’d never heard of prior to 9 a.m., and who we’d spent a good deal of the morning thinking was dead.

Then, as if his mere being alive and present weren’t enough, Rodriguez pulled out a guitar. The involuntary screaming grew deafening, or maybe we were the only one screaming. Maybe we blacked out a little bit. Seriously, it was as if we’d all just found out Justin Bieber was playing our birthday party. “You’re one of the most beautiful songwriters I’ve ever heard, on par with Dylan,” said a man, imploring him to play, as others around us shouted out, “No, better!” That’s when the shy Rodriguez turned his back to us and strummed quietly — he hadn’t been expected to perform, so his guitar wasn’t wired — playing “Last Request” by 25 -ear-old Italian singer Paolo Nutini. The room grew reverently silent and listened, then exploded into applause. (Good news for all of us: His albums, once impossible to find, are available on Amazon, and he’s also going on tour, including a stint at the ASCAP café here at Sundance.) Rodriguez then gave a humble wave and walked offstage with his family, and when last we saw him, he was mobbed for autographs by the elevator before once again quietly slipping away.

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Sundance: The Electrifying Search for Sugar Man