The new documentary Searching for Sugar Man shows that discovery is thrilling—even if you already know what's going to be discovered.
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.
The journalist who took it upon himself to finally verify that story, Craig Bartholomew, decided to approach it the same way he'd approach any investigative story: by following the money. The complex relationships of record labels and distributors involved, and the fact that this was in the pre-Internet mid-'90s, leads Bartholomew on a winding path that heightens the undercurrent of something not-quite-right going on.
As Bendjelloul retraces some of those steps, it seems plausible that he'll find something horrible at the end of his path. When the director interviews Clarence Avant, the former chairman of Motown records who was running the smaller Sussex Records imprint that signed and dropped Rodriguez, the music legend gets so agitated answering questions about Rodriguez that he nearly comes out of his chair to get in the "face" of the camera. Surely, one thinks, he's hiding something terrible.
But that's Bendjelloul again, using his materials to mislead. When the big reveal happens, 45 minutes into the movie, it's precisely what we've been led not to expect: that Rodriguez was alive, well, and living in Detroit working construction. The latter half of the film is then devoted to what only the most ardent Rodriguez fan (of which there are still few in the U.S.) has already known for a long time. After his "discovery" and being told that he was, in fact, a massive star in the opposite hemisphere, the musician took breaks from his manual labor to play concerts to massive crowds, bigger than anything he ever saw during his initial recording career.
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By so carefully planning the misdirection of the first half of the film, Bendjelloul's movie becomes more than just a music biopic with a twist. It becomes a commentary on the importance of that moment of narrative discovery, when surprises reveal themselves and our brains are forced to right themselves after being knocked off course. When done well, it works just as effectively whether you know what's coming or not.
The rest of the film plays out like a more standard music doc. We see footage of Rodriguez visiting South Africa for the first time, get the detailed biographical information from him and his family that the first half omitted while it was keeping up its mysterious façade, and are treated to a steady helping of the man's fantastic music, often accompanying brief music video-like interludes, tracking shots, and montages of the cold and barren Detroit winter.
So, to spoil or not to spoil? Certainly the rush of emotion that comes from finding out Rodriguez is alive is more intense for those in the same state of not-knowing as the investigators. But I knew going in that Rodriguez was alive, and found that moment of revelation hugely affecting anyway, because Bendjelloul made me care about the journey more than the destination.
Searching for Sugar Man makes an important point, which is that if the twist is all you have, then your film is probably doomed to failure. (M. Night Shyamalan, we're looking at you.) Which also means that we may want to slightly calm the righteous fury that fuels the "spoiler-alert" frenzy. While the blank-slate approach is obviously preferable, a good story is worth hearing on its own—even if you already know how it ends.