‘Searching for Sugar Man’ explores the fate of a rock musician simply known as Rodriguez. Giving away spoilers would be a great disservice to this extraordinary documentary. One of the reasons the story is so powerful is the way filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul reveals it to the audience like a clever detective yarn. Another reason the story is so compelling is that the artist himself is so mysterious. Because so little is known about Rodriguez’s whereabouts, it creates a mystical quality to his already shrouded persona. It is a brilliantly crafted documentary because you can’t help but want to find out more about the Detroit singer/songwriter.
Sixto Rodriguez was a singer in Detroit. His story is one made from rock legends. He was discovered by a record producer in a smoky bar who thought he was the next Bob Dylan. As a matter of fact, many people interviewed throughout the film rated him one of the most talented artists they’ve ever met in their music careers. Rodriguez made an album in 1970 titled ‘Cold Fact,’ which received critical praise but never sold any records in the U.S. The same fate happened to his second album in 1971 titled ‘Coming from Reality.’ And then sadly, Rodriguez fell into obscurity and never recorded another album again.
If the story ended here, it would not be a big deal. Quite a few talented artists never achieve fame and fortune. This is where the story gets really good. It so happens that a U.S. tourist visiting her boyfriend in Cape Town, South Africa (of all places), had a copy of Rodriguez’s album ‘Cold Fact.’ People heard the music and bootleg copies spread like wildfire. A record company (Sussex Records) re-released the two albums and they sold 500,000 copies. What is amazing is that Rodriguez’s popularity was greater than bands such as the Rolling Stones. Here’s the kicker. Rodriguez had no idea he was a rock legend in South Africa.
The documentary expertly goes into the fight against apartheid in South Africa and how white youth embraced Rodriguez’s anti-establishment message in his lyrics. The media painted a pretty bleak picture of South Africa in the 70s. The reality is that many whites wanted to protest the injustices against blacks but the government was so oppressive, many feared stiff prison sentences if they voiced their opposition. South Africa’s media was censored and Rodriguez’s albums were banned by the government. For a musician, getting your albums banned, earned him even more praise by South Africa’s youth.
This story keeps getting better and better. Two South Africans (now middle-aged) pour out their admiration for Rodriguez’s songs. Their testimonials are emotional and powerful. One of the South Africans is a jeweler named Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and the other is music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydrom. They go on a quest to find out what happened to their rock idol. One of the best scenes in the documentary is when they track down Clarence Avant, who was the former chairman of Motown Records and owner of the record label that re-released Rodriguez’s albums. Avant has worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. In the interview, he places Rodriguez in the top five artists he has worked with of all time.
For anyone who likes music and a good detective mystery, this documentary is a must-see. Rodriguez’s songs are placed throughout the film. His lyrics are so powerful; you will wonder why this talented man never made it big in the U.S. ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is now available on DVD http://www.sonyclassics.com/searchingforsugarman/.