Searching for sugar man
Searching for sugar man
Searching for sugar man is one of the most impressive documentaries I have seen in a while. It is the story about singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez from Detroit, who got a two album contract with Sussex and A&R Records. The first album, „Cold Fact,“ was very well received by the critics. Nevertheless, neither it, nor the second one, „Coming From Reality,“ sold well. On the contrary, it was a total flop and led to the contract getting dropped. Rodriguez went back to his normal work as a builder and no more was heard from him.
But several years later, his albums travelled half the world away, to surface in Cape Town, South Africa, where copies were passed from hand to hand and his songs became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement. 500,000 copies of his records were sold, which in that nation would be comparable to the Beatles or Elvis Presley.
This documentary by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul moves between Detroit and Cape Town, speaking to such influential South Africans as Rian Malan about the impact Rodriguez had at the time. But what about the singer himself? Nothing was known. Rumors spread that he was dead — a suicide, he killed himself onstage by shooting himself, or he set himself afire. Absolutely no evidence existed to support such theories, which by their sensational nature would hardly have passed unnoticed. Due to the lack of solid information however, the mystery surrounding this man- known only from his music, his face unknown- only grew with time.
Searching for Sugarman is one of those films where you would be best off knowing as little as possible about the background when you go and see it. (In fact, you better stop reading this article now before I spoil everything and mess up the amazing experience in store for you. ) Bendjelloul is well aware of this, and returns to the past to spin the story chronologically. We first meet Rodrigues as a simple man who hangs out in the streets like a beggar. Whereas some say he’s a beggar and others that he is a builder… everybody who worked with him on the album say: “He is a true magician, a poet, a Prophet! A gifted Man who in his songs tells us stories from the mean streets of Detroit”. Like in his very famous song about a crack dealer: Sugar Man.
The documentary then brings us to South Africa where we meet the music journalist Segerman who starts to search for the mysterious Sixto Rodriguez.
Segerman starts out by following the trail of the money and the documentary raises the poignant question, where did all money go? As it predictably turns out, royalties dont just vanish into thin air. It’s never verbalized in the movie, but it is pretty clear that Avant, the boss of Sussex Records, knows where the money is that Rodrigues should have got from the sales of his records in South Africa. Rodrigues never received a penny. He got betrayed. He just went on working as a builder, not knowing that he had become a famous rock star in South Africa.
Until the day Rodrigues daughter read an article on the internet about Segermans search for the mysterious artist Sixto Rodriguez and replied to Segerman telling him: “Hello I am his daughter.” This, in my opinion, is where it starts to get really emotional. The documentary follows how the Rodriguez family’s travels to South Africa, and their surprise at the fact that everybody knows the songs of Sixto Rodriguez. The concert halls are full of people who love him. Everybody in South Africa believed him dead… and now, there he is on the stage. What a great end for a story like that!
The ending is an unexpected twist and comes as a kind of relief after all the bad luck the artist had. It’s a pleasure to see Rodriguez finally getting the respect and credit he deserves for his passion, and for the hard work he put into his music. It is a phenomenal story, almost too good to be true, as if though someone had made it all up. But it is the truth and that’s what makes it so compelling.
And I’m left feeling a bit ashamed that I had never heard of Rodrigues before watching the documentary.