Searching for Sugar Man is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Yes, it is a documentary.
It had been lingering in my queue for a while, but winning the Oscar the night before put it back in the forefront of my mind. I had been reluctant to watch this movie because 60 Minutes ran a piece on it, so I felt I knew the story to the extent I did not need to see the movie. Boy was I wrong.
Beautifully put together and pretty much perfect in every way, I’m not sure how Sugar Man could have been any better. I think it has an absolute timeless quality which may allow it to live on as one of the great films of all time. It expresses the beauty of life in a magical two-fold way: first, that this story happened in the first place, and then that it took another 14 years after the mystery was solved for the movie to be produced. There are great true stories out there, but having them delivered as a motion picture is another thing altogether.
The obvious comparison here is with Buena Vista Social Club (1999), where by contrast that film was released immediately upon the salient revelations. With Sugar Man, it took some time for the story to resonate with the right filmmaker. And this filmmaker had to find his own way to tell the story, which may have meant playing a little loose with the facts in a spot or two (SPOILER ALERT! look at the Wikipedia page for more on this, but only if you have already seen the movie). But I don’t think the overall power of the movie is diminished. Besides, I have to judge a film based on the film alone and how I felt watching it, not what I found out afterwards doing research.
Again comparing with Buena Vista Social Club. That is an extraordinary and beautiful tale as well. However, I think in that case the album is a much more remarkable phenomenon than the movie. Not true with Sugar Man. Rather, this movie can better be thought of as documentary equivalent to Shine (1996): the triumph of long-suppressed, passionate artistic talent. Triumph of the human spirit when all might have just as easily been lost, depicted in full glory.
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I was so touched by Sugar Man that I thought it might be the best movie of last year. Yes, even better than Django Unchained. But it’s a documentary. So I got into a philosophical question of what difference does that make. A film should be judged only by the final product in front of you and the heights of emotion it can stir, not categories like documentary, drama, comedy etc. But in this case I think I will defer to custom and keep documentaries is a separate category.
Besides, I can’t fairly place Sugar Man on my Best of 2012 list since I did not see it theatrically. Now, though I think a movie should be judged purely by what it presents, a 10 rating — a masterpiece — carries with it a sense of timelessness; it is a classic gem untarnished by scrutiny. And as a documentary draws strength from the true story it depicts, it must also be liable for any deviation from a full accounting of that truth. As such I’m giving Searching for Sugar Man a 9/10, missing a 10 rating by a hair. Very highly recommended; this movie restores faith in humankind. Try to see it before you find out too much from other sources: the less you know about the story, the more you’ll get from Sugar Man.
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Production Notes: I’ve got to get my iPhone plug in — iPhone app 8mm Vintage Camera was used to create some of the effects in this movie. The Thin Blue Line (1988) was the first movie in my mind to showcase how compelling a documentary could be, and Sugar Man carries forth that tradition of outstanding production values. It’s important to produce documentaries on par with feature film standards so as to optimize the impact of the story.