An Incredible 'Search'

Searching for Sugar Man
(UK/Sweden, 86 min.)
Dir. Malik Bendjelloul

 Photo by Hal Wilson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It’s one thing to rummage through a thrift shop and find a kitschy lamp or knick-knack that suits your personality just perfectly. It is another thing, though, when the valuation of a man’s worth receives such polar opposite appraisals. Searching for Sugar Man tells an astonishing story of a musician who was tossed out one place only to be exalted elsewhere.

 Sixto Rodriguez released his first album in 1970. Titled Cold Fact, the record was generally met with positive reviews. The record sold few copies, but those who listened heard something important. Several of the record producers and music fans interviewed in Searching for Sugar Man liken Rodriguez’s music to Bob Dylan, often noting that his lyrics contained a depth and rhythm of poetry that was far ahead of other musicians of the time.

Rodriguez’s music caught the ear of one producer, Steve Rowland, who agreed to deliver the musician’s next album, Coming from Reality. As with Cold Fact, Coming from Reality barely registered a sale and was thus considered a failure. As Rowland notes in one of the more emotional interviews in the film, the record label dropped Rodriguez just two weeks before Christmas. Rowland found this fact particularly cold and distressing because one of Rodriguez’s songs on the album, “Cause,” begins with the line, “Cause I lost my jobs two weeks before Christmas.” It’s as if Rodriguez foresaw his own failure.

It’s this sense of anticipation in his music, however, that made Rodriguez such a success. Searching for Sugar Man moves from snowy Detroit to sunny South Africa where a collection of music buffs enthusiastically recant the popularity of Rodriguez’s music. The fans say that Rodriguez was more popular than Elvis and The Rolling Stones in South Africa. One record store owner, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, notes that Cold Fact was a staple on shelves in stores and homes across the country. Such a good musician, he recalls, “It’s such a shame he’s dead.”

The death of Rodriguez is a muddled affair as explained by the South Africans. One man says that Rodriguez shot himself on stage, while another says that the cause of death was self-immolation during a concert. Overdoses and accidents also feed into the rumor mill, and the only consensus is that a very talented man suffered a tragic and early death.
Courtesy of Malik Bendjelloul/Sony Pictures Classics
The death of Rodriguez’s work is particularly important for his mythology in South African culture. His music, which was rumored to have first travelled from the States in the bag of some tourist, struck a chord with apartheid-era South Africans. The counter-cultural and anti-establishment lyrics of Rodriguez’s music voiced many of the sentiments percolating in the citizens who wished to see an end to apartheid and state violence. So much did Rodriguez’s music connect with the South Africans that the South African government actually censored songs on the LP, the method of which was to scratch out undesired tracks on copies of Cold Fact so that they simply couldn’t play. In short, it seems that the American fans of Rodriguez were correct in calling the musician ahead of his time: Americans didn’t buy it, but Rodriguez anticipated a philosophy for change in another time and place.

Searching for Sugar Man traces the roots of Rodriguez’s impact on South Africans through a group of fans, represented in the film by Segerman and journalist/musicologist/detective Craig Bartholomew-Strydom. Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom explain that they began to study the lyrics of Rodriguez’s songs and used the scant specificities embedded within the music to piece together a biography. It made little progress, and the man resided mostly within the music. They then got the idea to follow the money trail. If his records were selling in South Africa, then someone in America must surely be collecting the royalties. This hunt and the ensuing online search eventually led to a radical discovery, and one that’s almost too incredible to believe.

By using the story of the quest for Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man touches upon some essential questions of how we value art and success. Even though Rodriguez was a financial failure in America, he was a cultural phenomenon elsewhere utterly unbeknownst to him. The money trail runs cold in Searching for Sugar Man, but the film shows that cultural relevancy and personal impact trump celebrity and wealth. Through all the searches and surprises related to Rodriguez, the result shows a man who never lost sight of himself and retained his humble/modest lifestyle throughout his career.

While some documentaries and/or biographical features often succumb to an over-elevation of their subject, Searching for Sugar Man succeeds because the myth of Rodriguez is fully at its core. The subjects and interviewees embrace the lore surrounding the man, if only because it helped keep his music alive. Even when the stories are met with disbelief, they fuel passion and nostalgia.

Searching for Sugar Man is a moving and inspiring documentary that pieces together the music, life, and myth of a man through an impressive collage of archival footage and interviews, all of which are set to a soundtrack of the artist’s original work. The film gives Rodriguez a second chance at finding an audience, and the mellow, insightful tunes will undoubtedly connect with viewers as they learn the life of the man who penned them. Searching for Sugar Man offers a fitting midpoint between two other music documentaries of 2012: Marley and Charles Bradley: Soul of America. The former doc makes an excellent portrait of a legendary recording artist, while the latter looks at a man who has struggled throughout his life, only to get his first album released at the age of 62. Searching for Sugar Man shows Rodriguez’s life as equal parts fable and labour, but his music could have had the impact of Marley’s if he had only caught a break. Like Bradley, though, he finally gets a second chance during his formative years and proves that no true talent should be written off early. If only William Hung could inspire fans in Mozambique!

 Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Searching for Sugar Man screened in Ottawa at The Mayfair (Bank) Dec. 7, 8, 12 & 13.