It's true what they say: "Searching for Sugar Man" is an extraordinary story, and, in the film that I finally saw last night, it is beautifully told. How a musical talent in Detroit got found, lost, and found again in apartheid South Africa is the stuff of myth: mystery, song, luck, and an abiding sense that art moves like water -- unseen, often, but knowing its way home.
This is also a story of intrepid journalism; the drama depends on the moment a South African journalist was ticking off article ideas years ago and added Rodriguez to the list. It depends on the patience, cleverness, and hard work of journalists who instinctively ask questions and un-bury narrative. That the film is presented in a way that invites us into the search is perfect.
But there's something else that struck me. As the dark of the theater (fashioned out of an old elementary school) rose, I turned to the person next to me, and this was the first thing that I wanted to talk about.
Watching Rodriguez in the film -- not just how he's talked about, but how he is -- I realized how often I mistake insecurity, shyness, detachment, awkwardness, and anxiety for modesty. These things are not synonyms. And I realized this by seeing the full-bodied articulation of modesty that Rodriguez possesses; all else had been mislabeling. He shows a more true shape of modesty: gentle, self-assured, present, easefully tentative, alert, honest, unafraid of quiet, and unafraid of being seen, or not.
It is a gorgeous thing. It is the material of prophets. And that I have not recognized modesty for what it is until now suggests that it is rare indeed.
- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "Do some stories exist only because we need for them to?"
- Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "What they eventually discovered is often delightful and at times so poignant that many of the most crucial details are best left for viewers to discover for themselves."
- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "...a fresh and unexpected documentary that plays like a nail-biting mystery and a ticket to ride the whirlwind where art and commerce do battle."
- David Malitz, The Washington Post: "The timing and geography of the story — pre-Internet, in a South Africa largely cut off from the rest of the world — make it unique."