Searching for Sugar Man
This documentary film, ostensibly about obscure Michigan-based Mexican-American songwriter Sixto Rodriquez, is just as much about music geeks and the lengths to which they will go when the subject is their favorite artists. Oh, there's plenty about Rodriguez, who under his last name only made a pair of lush folk LPs for the Sussex label, released in 1970 (Cold Fact) and 1971 (Coming from Reality) and then faded from sight.
We're played a fine selection of his songs, and eventually we hear from the man himself, both speaking (though not much) and performing. That said, director Malik Bendjelloul structured the film around some South African superfans' search for their hero. Oddly, this artist who hardly sold any albums in his home country was quite popular in South Africa, something he was unaware of at the time. (Cold Fact in particular was held in high regard there.) The first part of the film largely consists of South Africans enthusing about how important his albums were to them, detailing the circumstances of his popularity (it grew despite the fact that his songs were banned by the apartheid state, in which the media were government-controlled, meaning the popularity grew only by word of mouth) and pondering the rumors that purported to explain Rodriguez's disappearance: He'd committed suicide by setting himself on fire onstage, or by shooting himself onstage. He'd overdosed. He'd died in prison.
When we're not hearing from them, we're viewing interviews with collaborators (notably Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, co-producers of Cold Fact, and Steve Rowland, producer of Coming from Reality) who talk about Rodriguez's quirks (he played with his back to the audience; production meetings were held on street corners) vouch for the quality of the music we're hearing (Coffey calls him a "street poet"; Rowland, "my most memorable artist"), and explain some songs ("Sugar Man" is about drugs). We're told by the head of RPM, which distributed his LPs in South Africa, that it paid royalties to Sussex; when the topic of royalties is broached with Sussex owner Clarence Avent, he goes from lukewarm to coldly stonewalling in a flash.
Finally, after the fans' detective work pays off via Rodriguez's daughter noticing their website, they -- and we -- finally meet him. He proves not just modest, but downright humble, and rather taciturn; it's clear why the film had to be structured this way. He says of Cold Fact, "I had achieved what I wanted to do." And then, "Nothing beats reality, so I went back to work." His work? Demolition, and He also ran for political office, unsuccessfully; a strongly expressed socio-political sympathy for the downtrodden is frequently heard in his songs. We also hear from his daughter about how he majored in philosophy and took his children to museums. He also worked at Chrysler.
But then, as a result of learning about his popularity in South Africa, he visits in 1998. At his first concert there, on March 6 of that year, his audience fills an arena; we're shown spine-tingling footage of his reception. All six of his shows sold out 5,000-seat arenas. He's presented with a gold record (so the royalties should have been significant enough to trigger a payment). We're shown a newspaper headline of "American Zero, South African Hero." And we get some concert footage. Folks who are already Rodriguez fans will find themselves wishing for more of the latter.
The South African perspective simplifies the story somewhat. He'd actually been rediscovered, and toured, once before, as he was also popular in Australia; this goes unmentioned. I don't recall any mention of Nas having sampled "Sugar Man" on "You're Da Man" from Stillmatic, but perhaps that just didn't make it into my notes taken at the advance screening.
Nonetheless, this documentary tells a compelling story in a fashion that the music-geek audience will easily relate to. And, of course, with Sony collaborating with U.S. reissue label Light in the Attic (which brought us CD editions of both albums in 2008 and '09) on an official soundtrack, it and the film may finally bring Rodriguez the attention (and royalties) that were unjustly lacking for so many decades in his home country despite the quality of his songwriting and the lushly produced albums, and that is perhaps the best thing about the film in the long run. That, and the rare moments when we get to hear directly from the man himself. - Steve Holtje
Searching for Sugar Man is showing in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (Broadway between 62nd & 63rd St.) and Village East Cinemas (12th St. & Second Ave.) Rodriguez's concert at the Highline Ballroom on 8/31 is sold out.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.