Review: Searching for Sugar Man
Searching for Sugar Man, the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Dylanesque musician discovered in his native Detroit in 1968, is a saga almost too fantastic to be believed. Faded into near-total obscurity after two album releases, Rodriguez’ records make a huge splash in the anti-apartheid community of early 1980′s South Africa of all places. He becomes a folk hero with all the appeal of an Elvis or the Beatles.
Only for a long time he never knew it. The information flow in and out of the essentially fascist South Africa of the time, was practically nonexistent. Censors there actually took to scratching the vinyl grooves of a particularly anti-authority song on one of Rodriguez’s LP’s. Yet the cult surrounding Rodriguez’s records, initially believed to have been started by a smuggled copy, flourished nonetheless.
This first time documentary by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul ably swings back and forth from Detroit to Capetown. Generous samples from Rodriguez’s first two LP’s, Cold Fact and Coming To Reality (both originally released on Sussex Record) pepper what is essentially an unravelling of the great mystery surrounding Rodriguez’s rediscovery. Rumored dead after setting himself on fire onstage, lo and behold his adoring fans’ delight when he is actually found to be alive and well and working as a laborer in Detroit!
His initial tour of South Africa in the late 90′s, where he played to six sold-out stadiums, is rendered from the point of view of his worshipful fans. A parallel to the Beatles gig at Shea Stadium isn’t that outlandish ….Yet our filmmaker deprived us of much of any live footage during that concert. You can’t help but wonder was he hiding something?
Another elephant lurks in the room as well: why not an iota of information on Rodriguez’s apparent total creative hiatus for 25 years? Did he write ANYTHING new? And these three grown daughters who are interspersed through the film: why not a single word about who their mother was? What we get instead is an exploration of the money trail, or actual total lack of a money trail concerning any royalties owed to Rodriguez. An interview with Sussex founder and former Motown Records executive Clarence Avant pretty much puts to rest the absurdity of the dream that anyone would care two shits about honoring a 30 year old contract on a defunct record label. Avant is snarling and huffy but his words sum up the raw deal musicians have gotten over the years, especially during the decades depicted here.
Not that Rodriguez cares a lick. One of the main beauties of his story is how he gives away to family and friends nearly all the money earned in subsequent successful tours of South Africa. Also content to continue living in modest digs in working class Detroit, he ultimately comes off as a near saintly figure.You’ll want to know more, a lot more, about him after viewing this film. Start with the reissues of his recordings on Light In The Attic Records. One of his producers, Steve Rowland, comments in the film that the Rodriguez song “Cause” may be the “saddest song I’ve ever heard.” Them’s big words! Yet the infectious, authoritative melancholy of these songs most reminds me of that take-to-a-desert-island Van Morrison classic LP, Astral Weeks….Rodriguez will appear on David Letterman on August 14 and he’ll gig at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on October 28.
4 Resurrected Legends (out of 5)