Searching for Sugar Man
Back in the early 1970s, there was a recording artist out of working-class Detroit who put out two albums under some forgotten Motown sub-label. His name was Sixto Rodriguez — a first-generation Mexican immigrant — and he had a way with lyrics that captured his inner-city experience the way few others did. It seems everyone involved with producing his records was certain that he was going to make a big mark on the world, but his records never really went anywhere.
Except, that is, in South Africa. Unknown to just about everyone outside of that country, he was an enormous deal there. Somehow his records showed up and caught on, right in the middle of Apartheid. A counter-establishment, street-level view of the world might have been par for the course in American music and culture at that point, but it was an enormous deal to South Africa. The same sort of homes you could expect to have copies of The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water were also assured to have a copy of Rodriguez’ Cold Fact. The album sold half a million copies, which is over twelve times platinum under the rules of the Recording Industry of South Africa.
In a country as locked-down as South Africa was in the 1970s it wasn’t surprising not to get a stop on any world tours, but as time went on it became apparent that something was amiss. There were no press clippings or interviews available like there might be for other pop and rock stars, and there was little information about Rodriguez on his albums, outside the lyrics. By the 1990s, it was common knowledge in South Africa that their beloved icon had committed suicide. The exact details were up for debate, but they usually involved some spectacular on-stage flameout. That’s rock music for you.
But around the time that Rodriguez’ second album was re-released in South Africa on CD for the first time, record-store owner Stephen Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom decided to dig deeper and figure out what was really going on. And in Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul goes back to tell the story of where they looked and what they found: Sixto Rodriguez, as it turns out, was still alive and well, and living in what remains of inner-city Detroit.
The story is fantastic, and Bendjelloul does an excellent job taking us through from Rodriguez’ recording career, to what it meant to South African culture, to how he was found, and to what has come after. Though it’s his first feature, his experience producing pieces for Swedish television about artists from Björk to Kraftwerk pays off in knowing how to balance interviews — which do feel pulled from an episode of Behind the Music — with Rodriguez’ music. And he knows enough to play to a wider crowd than the staff of obscure vinyl-only record stores; Rodriguez’ sound is closer to a more heavily-produced Jim Croce, but more people will get it if the comparisons widen out to Bob Dylan.
The big missing question, though, is “why isn’t Rodriguez recording again?” He’s still working construction and demolition well into his 60s, but he’s taken time off for four tours of South Africa. With that much interest — and whatever this film scares up — doesn’t he have anything new to say? Maybe Rodriguez has his good reasons for sticking to his back catalogue, but Bendjelloul doesn’t seem to have found it worth asking about.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies, fail.