Movie Review: “Searching for Sugar Man” (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK 2012)

The Story in the United States

In 1970, Detroit-based folk rock singer-songwriter Rodriguez released Cold Fact. While very commercially successful, the album was a miserable failure commercially. A year later, Rodriguez released his second album to a similar mix of critical acclaim and public yawning. He was then dropped by the failing Sussex label and disappeared from the music industry.

The Story in South Africa

In the early ‘70s (the exact date is not so easy to pin down), an American singer-songwriter, Rodriguez, took the country by storm. His album Cold Fact was one of the most popular albums in the country’s history and ranked with The Beatles as the albums most important to the nascent liberal anti-apartheid movement. The single “I Wonder,” with its shocking lyrics (“I wonder how many times you had sex?”), became an unofficial anthem for the liberals of the country. In spite of (or more likely in part due to) the banning of some of his songs (notably “Sugar Man”) by an extremely conservative and anti-freedom of expression government, his position as a musical giant and leader of the liberal movement in the country was unquestioned.

Yet, little was known about the American singer who had never appeared in South Africa. Even his name was a mystery, as the album cover to Cold Fact credited him as simply “Rodriguez,” the sticker on the center of the record credited him as “Sixto Rodriguez,” and the songwriting credits were mixed between “Sixth Prince” and “Jesus Rodriguez.” He had only recorded two albums before dramatically committing suicide either through self-immolation on stage or shooting himself in the head to complete what had already been a dismal concert in support of his last album. The suicide shamefully robbed the world of a great talent, but only served to further the legend of Rodriguez.

Searching for Sugar Man

One of Rodriguez’s biggest South African fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (whose nickname came from mispronunciation of his last time and Rodriguez’s song “Sugar Man”), and music writer Craig Bartholomew Strydom set out to discover how Rodriguez had in fact died. The latter eventually found Mike Theodore, one of the producers of Cold Fact, and after much discussion asked his pivotal question, “How did Rodriguez die?” only to hear the incredible response, “He’s alive and kicking. He lives in Detroit.” His mystery solved, Strydom wrote an article about his search and moved on to other projects.

That’s not even the end.

As part of their search, Segerman and Strydom had set up a website about their search for Rodriguez. Suddenly, one day, the site received a message from a woman claiming to be Rodriguez’s daughter. Incredibly, she had received a copy of Strydom’s article and immediately recognized the man as her father. Segerman called her and learned more about the man he had idolized for so long, then was shocked to get a call from Rodriguez himself in the middle of the night thereafter.

Eventually, Segerman headed to Detroit to interview this superstar, discovering a humble man who had responded to the failure of his albums by dropping out of the music industry and working hard labor, moving into a house immediately after the label dropped him and never leaving. He made some unsuccessful forays into local politics, but otherwise seemed to be nothing more or less than a simple laborer, a member of the working poor not dissimilar from many others. He had never known about his popularity in South Africa (and really still didn’t look like he believed it), and apparently never received any payment for it.

Still not done.

In 1998, Segerman convinced Rodriguez, 27 years after he had left the music industry, to come play a series of concerts in South Africa. The concerts were an enormous success, sold out immediately and played before 5000-person crowds that were as enthusiastic as anything short of the Beatles at their peak, and well-reviewed. Shockingly, the unassuming singer-songwriter whose trademark had been playing bars with his back to the crowd was perfectly comfortable performing songs he had not played professionally in a quarter century before these large crowds.

Since, he has continued to tour South Africa successfully. And, the quiet Detroit laborer who has lived in the same house heated by a wood-burning stove for 40 years has given away nearly everything he has made from those concerts.

The Review Proper

It took that long just to tell the story that Searching for Sugar Man tells in less than an hour and a half, and I obviously left some things out. It’s a truly amazing story, with more twists and turns than anyone could ever expect, and it doesn’t get any less amazing after you’ve already heard it. Bandjelloul deserves a lot of credit just for recognizing what an incredible story this was and deciding to commit it to film, as it deserved.

The film isn’t perfect, but it’s difficult to make a bad documentary when you have a story that strong.

It opens up some questions that it never really answers or even explores fully. Why didn’t Rodriguez sell in the US? Why was Sussex chairman Clarence Avant so confrontational and argumentative about Rodriguez’s success in South Africa? Segerman asks, “Who wrote these songs?”

The first act of the film is a little muddled, as it attempts to mix together praise of Rodriguez’s talent, his commercial failure in the US, his success in South Africa, the legends of his death, and the beginning of Segerman’s search for him, the banning of “Sugar Man” and the repressive apartheid-era government in general, and the importance of Cold Fact within the anti-apartheid movement all at once—it’s rather dizzying and could have used tighter editing tying itself around a stronger central element. After that, it follows Segerman and Strydom and everything is much easier to follow.

The film occasionally drops in pieces of rather silly-looking animation and shots that are really just meant as pretty backdrops while Rodriguez’s (often fantastic) songs play, which really feel like wasted time more than anything else. I would have preferred more in-depth discussion of any of the above questions rather than these moments. The songs are great, and I understand wanting to make sure that the audience hears them, but it did a little much. However, outside of those animations, the film also didn’t bother to do much of anything visually. It’s rare to have a visually interesting documentary, but this really wasn’t one of the rare exceptions.

All in all, this is an excellent film and the rare successful feel-good documentary. Not many stories this fascinating have ever been told, let alone told truthfully.

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