Reading about Searching for Sugar Man, the documentary piqued my interest but it’s the resounding reviews from people who’d seen it that sold me. The story will be especially attractive to music aficionados. The facts about Rodriguez and his trajectory are specific yet possess a broad appeal.
The story is about Sixto Rodriguez, a talented folk singer, guitarist from Detroit. Compared to Bob Dylan for his powerful lyrics, he performed with his back to the audience. A terrific lyricist who put out two records in the 1970s to no financial success. He was dropped from his label and went into obscurity. Except that in South Africa he was a superstar, selling at least half a million records. But what happened to Rodriguez?
Enter Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (whose nickname, we learn comes from the eponymous Rodriguez song “Sugar Man”), a jeweler and later record store owner, who tells us about Rodriguez’s musical prowess in South Africa. That he’d heard that he’d set himself afire on stage during a show—the most disturbing rock suicide of all time. When Segerman writes liner notes for a Rodriguez CD reissue, he adds an inquiry in the liner notes to see if anyone has information on the legend. Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, a music journalist, answers the call and starts his investigation, eventually solving the mystery.
The storytelling in Searching for Sugar Man is excellent, as is the Super 8 footage, rich images, colors, hues. We are taken from the picturesque landscape of South Africa to California to Detroit. We get a fable, complete with myths about Rodriguez. We learn about Apartheid in South Africa and how deeply it cut of the country from the rest of the world. Sanctions and boycotts kept out foreign musicians and bands. Inside the country, the conservative pro-Apartheid regime of PW Botha censored music, including Rodriguez (by scratching the songs on LPs so they were unplayable). Story goes that an American woman visiting her South African boyfriend brought a Rodriguez bootleg and it caught, like fire. According to Segerman, during the ‘70s, most middle-class white households with a turntable owned Abbey Road (Beatles), Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Simon and Garfunkel) and Cold Fact (Rodriguez).
Searching for Sugar Man is juicy story with dead ends, switchbacks and a beautifully uplifting ending. The music, cinematography and rich interviews with music industry folk, a brick layer, a construction worker and a bartender round out a movie, underscoring the importance of dreams and that it’s never too late to make it.
Writer/Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Genre: Documentary that plays like a mystery
Run time: 83 minutes