Verdict: 4 / 5
Searching for Sugar Man is the endearing story of two fans’ quest to find out what happened to 70’s never-been Sixto Rodriguez. Well edited and filled with interesting, genuine people; this début documentary from Malik Bendjelloul will leave you with a warm glow.
In the early 1970’s Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez was hailed by producers as the next Bob Dylan. Discovered playing with his back to the audience in a dingy pool bar named The Sewer, he cut two albums and then sank into obscurity. No one could really say why the albums failed and it definitely wasn’t due to a lack of quality. Rodriguez’s albums were filled with soulful lyrics that spoke about blue-collar life and anti-establishment sentiment. He was completely ignored by the United States and is practically unheard of there.
But in Apartheid South Africa Rodriguez was about to become an icon. His songs were an inspiration to a section of the liberal white community, who did not agree with the racial policies of the country. Originally brought into South Africa by an American girl, an LP was copied onto cassette tapes and spread by friends. Rodriguez became a legend, but fans knew nothing about him beyond a meditative picture on the album cover. Man became myth and rumours of a sensational public suicide became accepted fact.
For 20 years Rodriguez’s two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, remained popular and continued to sell to new generations of fans in South Africa. In the mid-90’s longtime fan Stephen “Sugar” Segerman was asked to write cover notes for a CD rerelease of Coming From Reality and issued a challenge for someone to find out any real information about Rodriguez. Accepted by music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom, the two men attempted to follow record labels and hints from lyrics to uncover the truth behind the man; but neither of them could ever predict how their journey would end.
Following the mystery of Rodriquez gives this film its storyline. It is filled with people who have real affection for Rodriguez; and, as you follow his story, so will you. It is impossible to not feel that it was terribly unfair that this talented artist never found the fame and audience he deserved.
Bendjelloul skillfully combines archival footage with interviews and some artistic scene setting to create a fitting tribute to Rodriguez. This is the first feature length production from the Swedish filmmaker more known for producing documentary shorts.
The movie is not without a few flaws and does not deliver a really incisive take on its subject matter. Spending more time on what happened to the “lost” money from South African album sales would have been interesting.
Rodriguez might never have been popular with the non-white population of South Africa but they still could have acknowledged or at least given a comparison to a rich history of struggle music. But this doesn’t fit the narrative that the movie has constructed and is left out.
SPOILER: Although it’s not much of a surprise to South African’s but Segerman and Strydom find out that Rodriguez is alive and well. However he is not an easy interview subject. The information we get about him is from everyone around him as we never get much from the man himself. This does not mean he comes across as unlikable as he still seems as unassuming and as genuinely down to earth as one of his daughters describes him. It would have been nice if Bendjelloul had asked him more about his music and inspirations.
But none of these points are enough to take away from an authentic story of well-deserved recognition. It works equally well for people who know about Rodriquez already and for people who are encountering the singer for the first time. And, of course, it has an awesome soundtrack.