A scene from the film Searching for Sugar Man
Just occasionally a documentary comes along that not only recounts an astonishing tale but is a terrific film in its own right. This is the case with Searching for Sugar Man, a riveting account of the most extraordinary story in popular music that I can remember.
Singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, known simply as ‘Rodriguez,’ recorded two albums four decades ago, in the vein of what was once called folk-rock. But they barely sold at all, and he resigned himself to a life of poverty and obscurity. Years later he became a superstar in a distant land without even knowing it.
Rodriguez, a Mexican-American construction worker from Detroit, used to perform his songs in the city’s small, smoky clubs in the late 1960s. A shy, reclusive presence, he performed with his back to the audience. He wasn’t an obviously commercial proposition.
Still, two respected producers, both associated with Detroit’s Motown label, thought enough of Rodriguez’s talent to work with him on two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. They even thought he might be the new Bob Dylan. But the albums achieved pitifully small sales before disappearing without trace.
In America, Rodriguez was swiftly forgotten. But a bootleg copy of Cold Fact ended up in South Africa, where it circulated among white Afrikaans musicians fiercely opposed to apartheid. His songs, with titles like The Establishment Blues, inspired them to speak out and protest against the government.
Another song, Sugar Man, was banned on the government-run radio station for its drug references, but his albums were available. Cold Fact was distributed on a small South African label in 1991, and the reputation of Rodriguez gradually spread.
So did the myths about him. In those pre-internet days, there was no information from the United States about this long-forgotten artist. The word was that Rodriguez had committed suicide because of his failed career; a popular variation on this theme insisted he had set fire to himself on stage. These conjectures helped fuel his phenomenal popularity in South Africa. He was as big as Elvis, as big as the Stones.
Two of his most fervent South African fans, Cape Town record store owner Steve Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew, set out to find out what happened to Rodriguez – and specifically how he had died.
They studied every Rodriguez lyric to establish where he might have lived. Finally, Bartholomew decided to follow the money: if Rodriguez albums were selling in South Africa, where were the royalty cheques going? He eventually flew to America to establish the true facts.
The film’s director Malik Bendjelloul learned about the story of Rodriguez while he was in Cape Town, looking for human interest yarns to turn into seven-minute mini-documentaries for Swedish TV. He thought this story was worth more, and tried making a 25-minute version. Finally he realised it had to be a full-length film. Searching for Sugar Man, which won the documentary jury prize and audience award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is the result. Bendjelloul’s labour of love, in making a film worthy of his subject, took him five years.
And how his determination has paid off. Searching for Sugar Man is such a compelling story, an intriguing account of how one man’s music could inspire people he never met in a country he never visited. Beautifully paced and genuinely uplifting, it features a major plot twist I wouldn’t dream of disclosing.
Suffice to say the film is touching, moving and ultimately triumphant. And if you were buying records by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Byrds or Crosby Stills and Nash back in the 70s, you’ll probably want to rush out and purchase the two newly re-released albums by Rodriguez into the bargain.
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