Searching for Sugar Man

Dir: Malik Bendjelloul, 2012. Documentary.
Searching for Sugar Man

Like a real life Eddie & The Cruisers this British documentary by a Swedish director (Malik Bendjelloul) about a Detroit folk singer named Sixto Rodriguez who became an icon to a generation of white South Africans is both an in-search-of mystery and an inspirational tome to the power of music and survival. Searching for Sugar Man is another one of those documentaries that if it didn’t have “true story” stamped on it might be too crazy to believe. Not to mention that for someone my age to know that this person existed (and in my own childhood backyard of Detroit) and, like most of the world, am only now becoming aware of the stunning music that he created, it’s sad that Sixto Rodriguez's beautiful songs haven’t been on my heavy rotation all my life. But since seeing this movie they have become ingrained in my head and will never leave.

Coming out of nowhere for a handful of music business types in the late sixties, Mexican American Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez sounded like he could be the next big thing. He had a clear voice (that reminds me of Donovan) with sophisticated lyrics about love, heartbreak and socio-political ills in the Bob Dylan tradition. He recorded two albums and both were commercial flops. So Rodriguez (as he was known) went back to being an inner-city guitar-toting day laborer (and, of course, was screwed out of royalties for his songs). And that’s the end of that story. Or was it? Copies of the albums made their way into South Africa where they became massively popular to a generation of white Afrikaners who were coming of age and questioning the system of apartheid in which they grew up. A total police-state boxed-out from the rest of the world, South Africa was a little behind the times culturally and cut-off when it came to music information. The rebellion and loneliness in Rodriguez’s lyrics spoke to them. The rumor was that Rodriguez had dramatically killed himself on stage, putting an end to any kind of personal contact South Africans might have hoped to have with their idol. But the music lived on and came to define the decade for many.

Through the course of the film South African musicologists, now with a more free flow of information at their disposal, began researching Rodriguez and slowly come to realize that he is indeed alive and living a quiet life in Detroit (a city whose symbolic ruins also play a role in the story). Eventually with the help of Rodriguez’s devoted daughters, his legend is reformed in South Africa when he arrives for a triumphant concert tour. Amazingly, for a guy who thought the music dream ended almost forty years ago and is painfully shy, Rodriguez seems to have no problem strapping on the guitar, taking the stage and dominating with his stunning voice as if he had just written the songs days ago. The packed arenas and stadiums of fans who sing along, knowing every song by heart, must come as an absolute shock to a guy who all this time thought no one knew who he was or what he had written.

With the success of Searching for Sugar Man, a 60 Minutes profile, performances on David Letterman and Jay Leno as well as other carefully chosen venues in the United States and around the world, Rodriguez is back in the music game and building a new and devout fan base. The film’s victory lap recently climaxed by winning an Oscar for Best Documentary feature, ensuring that more audiences will seek it out and fall in love with the music of Rodriguez.

Besides the obvious inspirational messages about dreams, survival and art, Searching for Sugar Man hits all the beats any perfect music documentary wants to hit - you walk out of the film an expert in Rodriguez’s music, understanding the pain and intensity behind the songs. It also works as a mystery. All the back story about the man and his impact on a generation is explained before it’s ever revealed that he’s still alive. So when he finally makes a modern day appearance the build up is riveting, comparable to Orson Welles finally showing up in The Third Man, after his character arch has been explained over and over. Lastly, Searching for Sugar Man is just perfect entertainment. When nominated for an Oscar it was up against two films about the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict (5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers), a film about AIDS (How to Survive a Plague), and one about women in the military being raped by fellow soldiers (The Invisible War) - all admirable flicks and important subject matter, but none will last the test of time that Searching for Sugar Man will. My unscientific poll of people who have watched the movie has shown me that they have seen it more then once. This is one of those flicks that will be watched over and over again for decades; like Rodriguez’s music it’s a find that will come to dominate the rotation.

Rodriguez performed at Amoeba San Francisco on November 23, 2008. Watch the full performance here.

Searching for Sugar Man Official Trailer

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 26, 2013 4:48pm
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