Here's the Twist: Good Films Are Good Even If They've Been 'Spoiled'

The new documentary Searching for Sugar Man shows that discovery is thrilling—even if you already know what's going to be discovered.

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Sony Pictures Classics

Spoiler sensitivity has reached DEFCON 1 levels of hysteria. If you ever need a way to rid yourself of some Facebook friends or Twitter followers, just post a major Mad Men/Game of Thrones/Breaking Bad plot twist immediately after it happens some Sunday night, and then sit back and watch the angry comments fly in from your (now former) friends who were recording the show on their DVR to watch later. And woe to the critic who revealed that this year's Cabin in the Woods was about anything more than just a cabin in the woods—even though that information is revealed in the first shot of the film, angry fans took to comment sections with digital torches and pitchforks. In a recent review for NPR, I was even chastised for "revealing" that Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles, Trishna, portrayed a "doomed" romance—this despite the well-known story being well over a century old.

If the twist is all you have, then your film is probably doomed to failure. (M. Night Shyamalan, we're looking at you.)

Fiction lends itself to the element of surprise, putting the viewer entirely at the mercy of the imagination and cunning of the author. But surprise is harder to achieve in documentaries, especially those about past events and people. No one's going to come out of Kevin Macdonald's recent Bob Marley documentary saying, "Wow, I didn't realize he was going to die at the end."

And yet, the makers of Searching for Sugar Man, a new documentary about a minor musical icon who did his recording more than 40 years ago, practically play the audience for Sixth Sense-levels of subterfuge. But does that kind of misdirection work when the nature of the film's "secret" is likely to be revealed if anyone does even the most cursory Googling before heading out to see it?

The simple answer to that question is "yes," but to go further, a little spoiling is going to be necessary. Before getting to that, I can tell you that the film is about Sixto Rodriguez, a little-known Detroit musician who recorded two sublime records of Cat Stevens/Bob Dylan-inflected singing and songwriting in the early '70s before getting unceremoniously dumped from his label for poor sales and quickly disappearing into obscurity.

Except, that is, in South Africa, where the anti-establishment bent of his songs dovetailed with the increased student involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, and his songs became a touchstone for the Afrikaner protest musicians of the '80s. First through traded bootlegs, and eventually through official re-releases in the country, Rodriguez became a massive star in South Africa—equal or greater in stature to Elvis and the Rolling Stones. Yet his fans there knew nothing of him apart from the music itself, plus somewhat sketchy reports of Rodriguez's onstage suicide years before the country discovered his music. Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul's film concentrates on the mid-'90s efforts of some ardent Rodriguez fans to unravel the mystery of this man.

What they found—and if you don't want to know what the twist is, this is your spoiler alert—came as a shock. Anyone watching who is unfamiliar with Rodriguez will also be shocked, because Bendjelloul cleverly places the viewer where the investigators are: in the dark, with the same misleading clues. From the film's prologue, Bendjelloul continually pushes the theory that everyone in South Africa had assumed was true: that Rodriguez had killed himself in spectacularly gruesome fashion at the end of a badly received concert.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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