Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Searching for Sugar Man

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul.
2012. Rated PG-13, 86 minutes.
Sixto Rodriguez
Stephen "Sugar" Segerman
Steve Rowland
Dennis Coffey
Mike Theodore
Clarence Avant
Jerome Ferretti
Eva Rodriguez
Regan Rodriguez

In the early 1970s, a folk singer by the name of Rodriguez was discovered in a bar in Detroit, Michigan. Everyone who heard him agreed he was putting brilliant poetry to music that was on par, if not greater than Bob Dylan. Despite releasing two highly praised albums, almost no one heard of him. At least in the United States. Fast forward to the mid 1990s and travel to South Africa. There, we find out that over the last few decades Rodriguez has become one of the most iconic and influential music artists in that country's history. Strangely, no one in South Africa knew anything at all about him. They didn't even know if he was still alive. In fact, he was presumed dead since several fantastic tales of his public suicide had become accepted parts of the Rodriguez mythology. Finding it odd there was no concrete information anywhere about such a legendary figure, a few people separately embark on fact finding missions to learn a little about the man they have all come to greatly admire.

During the portions of the documentary filmed in America, we meet the people who discovered Rodriguez and worked with him on his albums. In South Africa, we hear from the people looking for him. Through the stories they tell and the music often playing, Rodriguez quickly becomes an ethereal presence hanging over the film. Full disclosure: since watching this many of the songs keep popping into my head at all times of the day. The combination of hard to believe anecdotes and haunting songs casts a spell that locks us into the mystery. We become completely absorbed in the efforts of these people to separate fact from fiction. We wonder how long they'll keep following paths to nowhere.

Most compelling are the stories of how Rodriguez came to be a legend in South Africa. It's a tale with humble beginnings, to say the least. Learning how the modest seeds blossomed into making him a full-blown music God in their country is fascinating stuff. It also begs the question why didn't he become popular in America? Many try to answer it, but can't come up with a reason that satisfies even themselves. Watching them try to talk their way through it is interesting. The funny part is Rodriguez is so loved in South Africa, they assumed he was gigantic in the States, too. There, he is estimated to have sold millions of records over the years. When asked how many he's sold in the U.S., Clarence Avant, a former record exec who worked closely with Rodriguez, only half-jokingly says "Six." This dichotomy between the two markets at the resulting viewpoints of those markets is startling. Or, I should say the difference between how South Africa viewed him and America not viewing him at all.

In the end, Searching for Sugar Man becomes one of the most unbelievable and inspirational stories you will ever come across. After the mystery dissipates it becomes just plain fun to watch. We can't help but to be swept up by the thing. For people like me who listen intently to lyrics of the songs we hear, it's a great help that there is some harshly beautiful and imaginative poetry here. These are not cliche filled couplets built for mass consumption. This probably explains his lack of success in his native country to some extent. Though hearing it makes it surprising that he didn't develop at least a cult following, here at home. Is he really better than Bob Dylan? I'd say it's arguable on the basis of what little we have from him. Obviously, he pales in comparison when it comes to volume and worldwide impact. Still, he became legendary in another land. Thanks to that, this film was eventually made. Thanks to this movie, I have discovered another great artist for myself.


  1. Oh, man. What an excellent review. This one was on my radar a ways back, but now I'll make it a priority.

    Hopefully this one will resonate a little more than The FP. You know, if that's possible.

  2. Lol. It may not be The FP but its a damn fun documentary.