Searching for Sugar Man
by Warren Curry
As an avid music fan, I recall when the excellent Seattle reissue record label, Light in the Attic, re-released the two full-length albums by obscure, long-forgotten ’70s singer/songwriter, Rodriguez, in 2008 and 2009. As was the case when the records were first released well over 30 years earlier, the music press showered the recordings with praise. But whereas these records were met with commercial indifference upon their initial release, this time a segment of music fans were ready to appreciate Rodriguez’s music.
However, as we learn in Malik Bendgelloul’s engrossing documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man,” there was already a country where Rodriguez’s music had provided great inspiration to millions. That country was South Africa, and it was here where the socially conscious songs of one Mr. Sixto Rodriguez, made available via bootleg recordings, became the soundtrack for the resistance to Apartheid. The artist himself had no idea of his popularity in this far away land.
To those who were aware of Rodriguez’s music career, it seemed the story only lasted a few years. His first album, “Cold Fact,” was released in 1970; his second, “Coming From Reality,” in 1971, but despite being lauded as a streetwise Bob Dylan, the Detroit-based artist was unable to acquire a fan base. He stopped making music and disappeared from public view, as rumors circulated of his death, the wildest story being that he set himself on fire during a performance.
Two of his biggest fans in South Africa, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, set out on a mission to uncover as much information about the artist as possible, a difficult task given the paucity of information available at the time. Bendjelloul’s film documents their findings, which turn out to be quite a bit more than anticipated.
Great artists often go unrecognized during their time, and Rodriguez’s striking music was largely ignored in just about every part of the world except one. Evidently, “Cold Fact” went platinum in South Africa, though no one claims to have reaped any financial rewards from the sales. The record label which originally released the album, Sussex, folded in the mid-’70s, and the label’s former owner, Clarence Avant, claims, in a surprisingly confrontational interview, that he never saw any money from album sales.
Though no archival performance footage of the man is seen (probably because it doesn’t exist), his songs are used generously on the soundtrack. Why his music didn’t register with people on a large, or even moderate, scale is a mystery considering its high quality. Given that this is an underdog story about a musician, it has elements reminiscent of “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” with a twist of mystery sprinkled in. And like that film, your feelings about the subject’s music should have little influence on your opinion of the movie.
As per music documentary standards, there are plenty of talking heads interviews with people such as the aforementioned South African fans, Avant, the men who produced Rodriguez’s albums, family members, co-workers, etc. Bendgelloul even uses brief animated sequences to add a playful atmosphere to the proceedings. Well paced and at just the right length to make every scene feel vital, this is a top-notch effort all around.
Though the recent reissues of his records greatly increased Rodriguez’s profile, it’d be false to say his fan base grew into considerably a large cult, but the release of this film will certainly add to it. Bendgelloul treats his subject with the respect due someone who created such great art and, by all accounts, led a virtuous life. “Searching for Sugar Man” is a journey well worth taking.
Searching for Sugar Man (Sweden/UK 2012)
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
PG-13, 85 minutes
(Sony Pictures Classics. Opens in limited release on July 27, 2012.)