Movie Review: Searching for Sugar Man
The Charlotte Observer
If you come from South Africa, “Searching for Sugar Man” may strike you as the greatest music documentary ever made. If you come from anywhere else, you’re likely to be enthusiastic, but you may have to smile at guys in the film who behave as if they’re on the trail of the Holy Grail.
He’s a folk-rocker from Detroit named Rodriguez, who released two albums in the early 1970s that were immediately forgotten stateside. How obscure was he? Zero airplay, virtually zero sales. My friends in high school and college at the time played this kind of music incessantly, and none of us ever heard of him. People couldn’t even agree on his first name: Songs were credited to Sixto Rodriguez and Jesus Rodriguez, not to mention “Sixth Prince.”
But in South Africa, his “Cold Fact” debut album was apparently one of three cornerstones in everyone’s collection, along with The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He was, says one fan, “much bigger than the Rolling Stones.”
So in 1998, two South African journalists/fans set out to find him, undeterred by rumors he was so despondent over his failure that he 1) blew his brains out onstage or 2) thanked the crowd for coming, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.
What they found is the basis of this movie, and people who don’t want to know should stop reading here.
The film actually tells two stories: How Rodriguez sold half a million albums in a country one-eighth the size of the United States, and what happened to him after 1973.
By some bizarre chance, perhaps a bootlegged cassette duplicated over and over, young people in apartheid-crippled South Africa came to consider him the voice of protest for their generation. (One fan says they never heard the term “anti-establishment,” until it turned up in one of his songs.) His albums circulated unofficially, then officially, then surreptitiously – radio stations were forbidden to play certain songs – but he became a mystery, a vaguely Latino presence wearing huge sunglasses on an album cover. (His eyes are light-sensitive.)
The film occasionally repeats itself, and it never pins down where all the payments for those South African albums went. We’re led to believe they lined the pockets of former Motown executive Clarence Avant; he owned Summit Records, Rodriguez’ now-defunct label, and he gets angry when questioned about the royalties onscreen.
They certainly didn’t go to Rodriguez, who’ll turn 70 next year in the same rough neighborhood where he’s lived for four decades. He spent the intervening years demolishing and cleaning out abandoned houses and raising three daughters. (We never hear about any mothers.)
But so powerful was his legend that, after a quarter-century of musical silence, he could still pack concert halls over and over when brought to South Africa by these exuberant musical detectives.
Writer-director-editor Malik Bendjelloul overstates the tragedy of Rodriguez’ failure: He’s compared favorably to Bob Dylan (though he sounds more like Donovan), but nobody speculates that he vanished because he appeared in a time flooded with similar performers. His songs hold up well, but they probably seemed stunning in South Africa only because they were heard in a relative vacuum.
Yet Rodriguez’ inner peace wins us over. He seems to have enjoyed recording music, fathering kids, cleaning houses, playing sold-out gigs and simply strumming a guitar in his kitchen. “Searching for Sugar Man” reminds us that a wise man knows lasting riches are never the result of record sales.