Searching for Sugar Man – Review


You owe it to yourself to go Searching for Sugar Man

Growing up children bombard their parents with questions. Doesn’t matter the subject or its vagueness. With the advent of the Internet kids can now bypass parents altogether and type their question into Google or look through Wikipedia. But what if there was a question where the answer couldn’t be found on the Internet? The documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of a little-known American musician from the decade that gave us disco, but also saw the deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. This artist was thought to have passed away like those three legendary musicians. But like the old saying goes don’t believe everything you read.

Sugar Man is a detective story about a filmmaker wanting to know more about an enigmatic Detroit musician thought to have committed suicide. His songs about the problems with bureaucracy and trying to find drugs to escape those problems should have been embraced by a post-Woodstock America. Sadly his music was overlooked.

In late 1960s, Sixto Rodriguez, the son of Mexican migrant workers, wrote songs about his working-class life. Mysterious, his face half-hidden by his long hair and dark glasses, Rodriguez was compared to Bob Dylan in terms of songwriting ability, performing folk songs in an inner-city bar, sometimes with his back to the audience. Then he was discovered by a former Motown producer who thought he could make Rodriguez a star. Despite his debut album, Cold Fact, getting critical praise, neither it nor his second album, Coming From Reality, sold well in America. Rodriguez’s contract was dropped and rumors circulated, but couldn’t be substantiated, about the singer-songwriter’s death.

Years would past and a funny thing happened. His music traveled half the world over to Cape Town, South Africa, where bootleg copies passed from person to person; his soulful lyrics would be instrumental in the anti-apartheid movement. When Stephen Segerman, an independent music store owner, began selling the albums commercially in Cape Town they were big hits. Cold Fact alone sold 500,00 copies. Not quite platinum in the States, but in a country the size of South Africa that number puts Rodriguez up there with the likes of Elvis Presley and The Beatles.

The fascinating documentaries, the ones that really captivate, seem to be born out of accident than on purpose. As a comparison, it would be like doing research for a paper and tackling it at a different angle than you had planned initially. Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul probably thought he would frame the story by interviewing those who knew of Rodriguez and his music.

The further Bendjelloul investigates the more he starts to realize that the rumors of his passing were highly exaggerated. Rodriguez’s supposed suicide, either shooting himself on stage or setting himself afire, were reported but never substantiated with any actual evidence. How could something like that happen? The actions in the venue alone would have had eyewitness accounts. But the theories surrounding Rodriguez’s death only makes the musician that much more mysterious. Here is a man that you could pass on the street and have him be unrecognizable, his long hair and countenance making it that much easier for him to be just another face in the crowd.

Stephen Segerman, who would be called “Sugarman” on account of his last name, the nickname adopted from the Rodriguez song “Sugar Man,” is the type of figure John Cusack famously played in High Fidelity, passing his music wisdom on to those who pass over the altar into his hallowed music store. When he began his own investigation into Rodriguez he discovered the information superhighway (ahem Internet) had nothing but roadblocks – no answers. Going as far as creating a Web page to aid in the search, it would be years before he received a response which would lead him to a new set of bread crumbs to follow.

Searching for Sugar Man is a stranger-than-fiction tale about a musician who was disinterested with fame or fortune. He shared his gift of songwriting to the world (at the expense of a music producer who saw dollar signs), but the gift was marked return to sender. Except for those select copies that found their way to South Africa only to become “the soundtrack of our lives,” as Segerman puts it.

As far as where those bread crumbs lead, well, the convergence of efforts by Segerman and Bendjelloul lead to a revelation that’s quite compelling, much like the documentary itself. To say anymore would be a disservice to this film that is built on search and frustration, and supported by Rodriguez’s folk music – dissonant in one nation after the civil rights movement; fully embraced in another during an anti-apartheid movement.

Regardless if you are a music fan or not, you owe it to yourself to go Searching for Sugar Man. Trust me. We need more stories like this.

Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Notable Cast: Rodriguez, Stephen Segerman

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