Documentary Review: Searching For Sugar Man
When you think of singing icons, which male icons come to mind? Elvis? Bob Dylan? How about Rodriguez? Yeah, I know you’ll be asking ‘Who Rodriguez?’ Searching for Sugar Man solves the mystery for us of who Rodriguez is while the documentary plays out the fan’s mystery of what happened to him.
Sixto Rodriguez was a Detroit rock/folk singer from the early 70’s who wrote songs of what he saw and felt. His songs were a mix of folk and blues and he was already being touted as the next Bob Dylan by Sussex records: the record company that discovered him. He recorded two albums under Sussex but neither sold. Rodriguez was dropped in 1972. Yet another could’ve been that didn’t. That’s that, or so it seemed.
South Africa had a different story. People had bought both of Rodriguez’s albums and it caught on. The fact that his album was banned in South Africa at a time where censorship was heavy increased the stigma of the album and bootleg versions came about into the hands of many more South Africans. There was even talk of his alleged onstage suicide in 1973 that increased the stigma of Rodriguez that made him a bigger phenomenon than Elvis. The problem was that there was not only a lot of censorship within South Africa at the time but a lot of censoring of media of what came out of South Africa. Nobody outside South Africa knew of Rodriguez’s phenomenon there. Not even Sussex Records, which folded in 1976.
Then came the time to put Rodriguez’s music on compact discs in the 1990’s. This was done with the aid of record-store owner Stephen Segerman, who’s nicknamed ‘Sugar Man’ after one of Rodriguez’s songs, and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom who had to write the liner notes to the disc. They try through pictures and through lyrics to get information to no avail. Instead Strydom wrote in the liner notes asking out for knowledge. That’s what triggered the determination to find out what happened to Rodriguez and learn more about his life. Boy were they in for a surprise. They post an ad on the internet asking for knowledge. They get more than knowledge from people that know him: they learn he could be alive.
Then came the call from the man himself to Segerman. Rodriguez is alive and working as a construction worker/demolition remover in Detroit. He has been married twice and has three daughters and a grandchild. He taught his children never to feel like second-class citizens despite coming from a working class family. He even ran unsuccessfully for civic office in 1989. They’re excited but they know that all of South Africa need to know what happened to him and Rodriguez needs to know of his fame. Then he finally agrees to do concerts in South Africa in February 1998 featuring a popular South African band as his backup musicians. It’s at that moment during the very first concert that Rodriguez finally learns of his greatness and South Africans finally meet their beloved musician. After the tour, it was a return for the Rodriguez family to their regular lives and Sixto back to his construction work. Only now his co-workers know more about his fame half a world away.
One thing I liked best about the documentary is that it keeps secret the fact that Rodriguez is still alive from the audience until we hear of Segerman’s phone call from Rodriguez right in the middle. Unless you have your wireless device with you at the film–and I hope you have enough manners not to use one in the theatre while the film’s running– you too will probably think that Rodriguez is deceased because you most likely wouldn’t have known who he is either. The film did a smart move in revealing Rodriguez is alive and showing us the real life Rodriguez in the middle of the film. It makes the South Africans’ mystery of the past our mystery too.
Another good quality of the documentary is that it does remind you about the music industry. It’s cruel but it still decided the winners and losers whether we like it or not. We often think that the late-60’s early-70’s was the time most accepting of new sounds, most consisting or game-changers in the music scene and less pressure to conform to looks or less need for mass promotion. Rodriguez’s lack of success reminds you that even back then, promotion and typical music business procedures were necessary to even make a legend out of Rodriguez. He could have been the ‘Dylan Of Detroit’ that people described him as but his success never happened at home. And this was at a time before independent record labels or alternative radio or even before unsigned musicians could create and produce their own music and have it on iTunes and Youtube. Was the grass really greener back then?
Another good addition in the documentary is the use of animation, pictures and Sixto’s music. The animation shows the images of the Detroit Rodriguez knew and wrote about. The pictures of Rodriguez during the 70’s give a good example of his personality. His music shows the darkness of the life he was living and the life he saw through his eyes. The combination of it makes this out to be something more than a simple music documentary. The people interviews for the documentary also added to it. It’s not just the two South Africans, Sixto and his family but record personnel who worked with Sixto, a South African band who idolized him and would become his back-up band during his 1998 South African tour, and even co-workers of his construction job.
The documentary is not just about Sixto and the fame he never knew he had but also of South Africa and why they fell in love with his music. We should remember up until 1990, South Africa was a country under the strict rule of apartheid: the separation of races. Life was hell for non-whites but life was difficult for many whites too, especially the ones who opposed apartheid. News was censored. Entertainment was limited. And speech against apartheid even from white people was a crime punishable by 3 years in prison. You think the hippies of the late 60’s early-70’s had their things to rebel against? It was nothing compared to what the young South Africans of the time had to deal with. You could understand why censored music would attract them: because they were that disgusted with their government. They even go into South Africa’s national archives of censored music, take out one of Rodriguez’s albums that was to be the nation’s official master copy and show the scratch marks of one of his songs. Scratching out songs on albums was the censorship technique used by the South African government.
The movie does not end on a completely happy note. We still learn that people other than Rodriguez are making money off of his records. We learn that Rodriguez has toured South Africa at least three more times and he has given all of his tour money to family members. He still lives in the same Detroit house he’s lived for forty years and never complained about the fame in the US he never had. In fact he’s even happy with his construction work as he says it helps keep him in good physical condition. Shows that Rodriguez is not just quite a musician but quite a person.
Has my review stimulated interest in you to actually hear Rodriguez’s music? Guess what? The documentary has succeeded in stimulating interest in Rodriguez to the point that the soundtrack of the documentary has sold. This has also led to recent reissuing of his two albums in many countries including the US and even appearances on 60 Minutes and Letterman. Guess what? For the first time his music is charting in the US! In fact this very week, Cold Fact is #78 and the Searching For Sugar Man soundtrack is #100 on the Billboard Album chart. Yeah, it’s a shame that he had to wait 40 years for success of any kind here but better late than never.
Searching For Sugar Man is an intriguing documentary that leaves the audient engaged in Rodriguez’s music as well as the mystery the South Africans try to solve on him. In a world full of documentaries that mostly one-sided liberal propaganda being shoved down your throat, this is a welcome relief too. I went to see it because it’s heavily favored to win the Oscar for Best Documentary. Boy did I get more than my money’s worth.
Note: If you want to learn more about Rodriguez, here’s his official website: http://www.rodriguez-music.com/ You can even give your email for upcoming news and tour dates. Now if only he can come to Canada!