As many others have said, this is a truly astonishing and uplifting documentary. To think that an artist can flop so badly in America, barely selling 100 records, and yet inspire a whole generation and be their "Bob Dylan" or "Rolling Stones" in another country, yet at the same time be utterly oblivious to it; it's incredible.
Until I first heard about this film, I'd never heard of Rodriguez before. I'd never heard his music, never known about the impact he had on revolutionising a nation, never even heard his name mentioned. This, I think, is the best way to go into the documentary.
Although at the heart of this story is the journey that some South African's go on to find out "who is Rodriguez" - a man who, even to the nation he helped change, was a complete mystery - I think I enjoyed it more being blissfully ignorant. It's a journey I felt glad to follow and made me feel a part of the exploration. I am now aware of Rodriguez, and so should others be!
Aside from being uplifting, the film tries to shed light on corruption and deceit within the music industry itself, but that aspect does feel a bit tame; like they're trying not to tread too deep into potentially libellous territory. For example, when they're "following the money" to try and trace what happened to Rodriguez, you get to see a brief clip of an interview with Motown legend Clarence Avant which gets cut short relatively quickly. I couldn't help but wonder how much was removed due to the threat of legal action?
But almost everyone else in this documentary comes across as genuine, humble, likeable people. The fact there were rumours of Rodriguez's suicide all around South Africa, no-one truly knew what he was like, where he was even from in America, it created this sense of wonder that as a viewer is transferred to you. It's a real credit to the director, Malik Bendjelloul. I'm expecting big things from him in the future and will be keeping a look out for any future works of his!
I recommend this documentary highly. It's bound to make you feel good about the world and most of all, it's fun and entertaining. A fantastic piece of film making.
Searching for Sugar Man is the remarkable film of Rodriguez, a Detroit based singer-songwriter, tipped for the top by his record label and the critics, but whose 1970 and '71 albums failed commercially: except, and without his knowledge, in South Africa where his socially concious Dylanesque lyrics, delivered in a style that leans a little toward Neil Diamond, took off big style.
It is hard to believe that an artist's records could sell in large numbers somewhere in the world without his knowledge, but South Africa was a fascist state at the time where popular music was effectively banned -- especially music that challenged the establishment -- and later cultural boycotts left the country further isolated. Into this void had stepped a large and sophisticated bootleg industry, that did very well out of Rodriguez while the artist himself scraped a subsidence living as a labourer in one of the United States' most depressed cities. Only with the collapse of Apartheid and the advent of the internet did this situation change. South African fans had believed Rodriguez dead, his legend enhanced by stories of a gruesome on stage death by self-immolation. But in 1998 Rodriguez's daughter stumbled across a fansite dedicated to her father and the rest is history.
So Searching for Sugar Man is the story of loyal fans' desperate search to discover more about their idol and delighting to find him alive. Rodriguez belatedly achieves stardom and while he never receives the royalties on all those album sales he does play to tens of thousands over a series of sell-out gigs. It is a wonderful film -- I nearly cried -- a rags to riches story with the strangest of plots.
on 30 December 2012
This beautifully made documentary is, like the story of Rodriguez, irresistible. How a musician, long forgotten in his own country, can be a superstar in another without him being aware of this is a screenwriter's dream. I suppose the story seems even more fantastic in our modern hot-news, hooked-up, internet-driven world. This is an absorbing film about a modest man whose music was played, recorded and released in the US in the early 1970s. His records 'Cold Fact' and 'Coming From Reality' did nothing and he quietly faded into obscurity. Meanwhile, in South Africa, his music quietly and steadily gained cult status. No-one knew anything about the musician until a journalist started digging. What he found was extraordinary and this film tells the story. Highly recommended. The albums are superb too.
on 26 May 2016
Who was Sugar Man, why was he called this, who was searching for him, and why was he being sought?
The answers are complicated and have to do with music, history, politics, international relations.
Sugar Man was a drug dealer in Detroit.
“Sugar Man, won’t you hurry
Cos I’m tired of these scenes.”
So says the addict in the song, desperate for oblivion, for a place to kill his pain, at least temporarily.
The singer is Sixto Rodriguez, an artist few in America had heard of, a singer-songwriter-guitarist whose two albums in the early 1970s went nowhere. But that was the U.S. Elsewhere he was iconic, heroic, talismanic, a legend.
South Africans were the ones searching for him. Or some of them — those inspired by the music, ashamed of what apartheid had done to their country.
Sugar Man appealed to the young white urban middle-class, the educated and liberal. His records made their way to South Africa and for a short time received airplay on local FM stations (until the authorities shut down the music). Word spread, as did bootleg copies of the albums — all two of them (“Cold Fact”, released in 1970 and “Coming from Reality”, released the following year). They flourished underground, played clandestinely in bedrooms, backstreet cafés and at private parties.
It’s hard for us who were not there in the South Africa of the ‘70s to feel what they felt for him. We had never heard of him, and they — young white South Africans — had no idea we never had. To them he ranked with the Beatles and Rolling Stones, a Pied Piper from Hamlin who would lead them to liberation, not doom as in the folktale of old. They hung on his words, analysing and interpreting their significance.
“I wonder about the tears in children’s eyes
And I wonder about the soldier that dies
I wonder will this hatred ever end
I wonder and I worry, my friend
I wonder, I wonder, don’t you?”
Answer: Yes, they did. They wondered about all of it, sick and tired of their political condition and wanting change. If the Beatles sang of revolution and the Stones were street-fighting men, Rodriguez was their revolutionary, his music travelling everywhere to them underground.
“Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people they’re abusing
The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me this is where it’s at”
There was no internet in those days. No satellite TV, either. International sanctions against South Africa had isolated the country, turning it into a kind of sunny North Korea. Young whites identified with the oppressed black majority, both groups incarcerated in their different ways. These young whites knew what Mandela stood for and shared the values he prized. They wanted Nelson, themselves and their country freed, but this could only happen, they knew, with the white power structure challenged and dismantled.
Rodriguez gave them hope and courage. “For many of us,” says one South African in the film, “he was the soundtrack of our lives.”
The film is a non-linear chronicle of that strange and beautiful event — the hope and courage he gave people through his music. We begin in South Africa with confessions from several persons, including a music store owner and a music journalist. Later in the story they become important in the search for Sugar Man. Soon thereafter we are in Detroit where Rodriguez grew up and still lives today. The portrait that emerges from those who know him there is of a modest, gentle, hardworking man. Also a loving and loyal one — loyal to his three grown daughters, friends, city, roots and work. What work? Hard labour: roofing, bricklaying, construction, furniture removal. One co-worker says he works with pride, putting in an honest day’s labour because that’s what he can do. Loyal too to the arts which he never abandoned: music, painting, literature and poetry. He went back to university and got a degree in philosophy. He ran for city council and mayor of the city. And when his girls were growing up he took them to libraries, art galleries, science museums and concert halls, just so they would know something about the dimensions of the world.
His daughters love him, clear in everything they say about him, a good man at the centre of their lives. So in a way he’s already rich by the time the South Africans track him down, if richness means love, contentment, peace and acceptance. He is found through the sleuthing of a music journalist: interviews, phone calls, a website and e-mails. He’s invited to South Africa and flies there with his daughters in March 1998. Sold-out concerts, of course. The people scream and cry at them, sing and dance to the music. He’s their own Christ risen from the dead, fulfilling the promise of liberation made to them long ago through his music. He comes to a country free of apartheid whose president is Nelson Mandela. Tears all around, then, for South Africa at this time.
Both fairy stories are true.
As far as we know, success failed to corrupt Sixto Rodriguez. He never left Detroit and he gives away earnings from concerts and royalties to loved ones: family members and friends. He’s happy with his music and the bounty of recognition, seemingly unmoved by the seductions of money.
In a later song he tells us he wants to slip away. From what? That’s the interesting thing:
“Maybe today I’ll slip away
You can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
You can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend my shattered dreams”
In the end his dreams were not shattered, or not entirely. Nor could he completely slip away. He had touched too many and their own dreams and would remain loyal to them as well.
So states South African music fan Stephen 'Sugar’ Segerman to 'long lost’, enigmatic US musician (of Mexican descent) Sixto Rodriguez, as Segerman (in 1998) unearths the presumed dead Rodriguez (now living in Detroit) in Swede Malik Bendjelloul’s intoxicating (and Oscar-winning) 2012 documentary. And, although the film’s claims that Rodriguez had been entirely 'lost to the world’ since his career flopped in the US in the early 1970s is not quite true – in addition to his popularity in media-isolated, Apartheid-ridden 1970s/80s South Africa, he was also popular in Australia, touring there in the 70s/80s – this does not overly detract from what is an irresistible 'fairy tale’ story of overlooked talent, musical inspiration and the subtlety, and poignancy, of modest ambition.
Bendjelloul’s film is also remarkably assured given that this was his first major cinematic excursion, seamlessly blending interviews with Rodriguez family members, disbelieving co-(construction) workers of ('modern day’) Rodriguez and South African fans with stark depictions of the ruthless South African racial segregation policies, and all overlaid with Rodriguez’s superbly evocative music – whose style, both thematically and aurally, is reminiscent of Dylan, with elements of, say, Donovan and Nick Drake thrown in – the latter with whom Rodriguez’s 'story’ has, initially, a good deal in common. Indeed, one of the things that makes Bendjelloul’s 'story’ so compelling is the remarkable juxtaposition of the tale of Rodriguez’s overlooked potential with the political (and musical) inspiration it provided (equally remarkably, primarily by ‘word of mouth’ – the circulation of copied cassette tapes!) to music fans in a nation thousands of miles away (despite the South African authorities’ attempts to censor Rodriguez’s ‘political’ material by physically 'scratching out’ tracks on vinyl records!). Similarly, the unassuming attitude presented by Rodriguez (and family) provides an interesting (and novel) commentary on US social attitudes – one that rarely surfaces in today’s celebrity and 'status’-obsessed media.
Thus, despite there being one or two 'holes’ in Rodriguez’s story (for example, where the revenue from the man’s significant South African, and presumably Australian, record sales went – A&M Sussex Records (and ex-Motown) supremo Clarence Avante becomes noticeably twitchy on this subject having previously lauded to the skies Rodriguez’s music), Bendjelloul’s film is a compelling watch and follows in the wake of other recent outstanding documentaries, such as Bart Layton’s The Imposter and James Marsh’s Man On Wire. The film also takes on a note of added sadness following Bendjelloul’s recent suicide in May 2014.