DVD: Searching For Sugar Man


Searching for Sugar Man by director Malik Bendjelloul

When I was about 20 years old I wrote a short synopsis for a fiction film about an unknown author who writes a book, gets into a car accident, goes into a coma and wakes up ten years later to discover he is one of the most famous authors in the world. Unfortunately, the script didn't work, there was no action, the guy was just in a coma, and the whole thing was pretty dull and empty. Ten years later I found out about Rodriguez and realized what a really good story looks like... Everything and everyone involved in the story has a little story of their own. It is a great big story made of 40 smaller stories. There were many decent stories that even didn't make it into the final cut of Searching for Sugar Man. Like this one:

One of the big mysteries in the story about Rodriguez is why he never became famous in America. Not just that he wasn't famous, but he didn't even make it onto the Billboard 200 chart. There are thousands of artists that no one remembers who still sold more than Rodriguez. His American failure was, in every respect, extreme.

While at the same time, his South African fame was extreme; he was on par with the Rolling Stones, he was a household name as only a handful great artists gets to become.

So how could that be? One explanation could be the story of Sussex Records. Clarence Avant's Sussex Records started out in 1969, and the first artist they signed was Rodriguez, the first album they released was his "Cold Fact." The marketing strategy was, as usual, to promote the album with a single, and the track chosen was a blues song about the hard life of the streets, a song called "Inner City Blues." On the B-side there was a beautiful love song, "Forget It."

The single was released in 1970 and it sank like a stone, it failed to chart, it didn't get any radio airplay. Then, one day, another artist steps into Sussex Records office with his demo, an artist named Bill Withers. Sussex decides to sign him, and the marketing strategy is the same: The A-side is a blues song about the hard life in the streets, "Harlem." The B-side is a beautiful love song called "Ain't No Sunshine." The single is released in 1971 and it faces the same reception as "Inner City Blues." It doesn't get played on the radio, it doesn't sell. Then one day a radio DJ plays the B-side by accident. In 1972 "Ain't No Sunshine" wins the Grammy for best R&B song, and Bill Withers is today in the songwriters' hall of fame.

Maybe it was just a flip of a coin, one artist is lucky, one artist is not, one man's life changes forever, the other man's doesn't. Until 40 years later….


• "The most striking thing of the many striking things in Searching for Sugar Man is the personality of Rodriguez himself. Unspoiled, not bitter, undimmed perceptions, and the continued passion for his craft all make a huge imprint on the viewer. And of course, it is all the more impressive because he spent 30 years in demolition and cleanup instead of filling our minds and souls with his remarkable music. The story is too crazy to be made up; no one would see it if it were a piece of fiction, unless it was written by Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams. But it is a true story, a gripping story, and a rewarding story. The story of a wonderful human being and a remarkable father. A feel good documentary which alone makes it a near impossibility. There is only one qualifier you will notice again and again in reference to Searching for Sugar Man: must see." - David Weinberg, 8/12/2012
• "Searching for Sugar Man is a spectacular saga. Music lovers of all nations who believe in social justice will find this documentary as a balm for the soul." - Michael Selyzer, 7/28/12

• "Stunning. One of the greatest and most moving documentaries ever made. **** " - Ali Cattrell, Q magazine (U.K.) • "The story of Sixto Rodriguez' accidental stardom in South Africa is every amateur songsmith's wildest dream come true. Having plugged away for years in front of unappreciative hometown crowds - in Rodriguez' case, having given it away altogether - to then discover you have been adored all along, by half a million fans, must be quite the trip. A trip, in this case, from inner-city Detroit in 1971 to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1998.

Sixto Rodriguez is a singer songwriter from Detroit who came to brief notice in the late sixties. He was picked up by a label which was part of the Motown empire. Perhaps his mistake was to ply Greenwich Village folk to the people of Motor City, but in any case his two recorded records sold not at all, and he was promptly dropped and passed quickly into oblivion.

Or so he thought: But not, as it turned out, in South Africa, where his songs had spread by word of mouth and bootlegged cassettes. Under Apartheid this Mexican American folkie became an immense underground hit. South Africa was then a police state, so this is no mean feat, but perhaps explains why there was no greater communication in or out of the republic, for Rodriguez knew nothing of this success: he didn't know his record was even released in South Africa, because it wasn't: in a story as implausible as the one about American sailors donating 45s to Liverpudlian guttersnipes and thereby educating them about Chuck Berry, someone's girlfriend came over from LA with a copy, it got taped and passed around, and before long it had shifted half a million copies. Viral marketing, 1971 style.

I checked with a South African compadre and it all seems to be true: his music (mostly a passable, if unremarkable, pastiche of Leonard Cohen or mid-sixties Dylan) is available on line. Still, vital things are not, or only half-, explained, such as how a few ropey C90s [cassette tapes] were converted into an officially released long playing vinyl record without interaction with the artist or his label, and where the money went: the film darkly hints at skulduggery amongst American impresarios, but never gets as far as pointing a finger.

In any case, the film's first half centres on two South African fans and their quest to find out more about this artist. Common consensus in Capetown had it that Rodriguez was long since dead, a victim of on-stage suicide, variously by self immolation, gunshot or overdose. The fans (one of whom is nicknamed "Sugarman" after Rodriguez' song) set out to get to the bottom of how he died.

*** spoiler alert *** It is difficult to talk about the second half of the film without giving away the spoiler that they do eventually find a trail back to Rodriguez, and he's not dead at all - but still working as a labourer in Detroit. Sixto's nearing sixty and has three daughters.

It doesn't take long before he and his daughters are flying to South Africa for a concert tour. This last part of the film is an uplifting record of that triumphant tour, where over six nights he played to 30,000 hysterical fans. Really hysterical - Beatlemania style, mouthing every word of his lyrics. I dare say Leonard Cohen never had that.

Throughout it all Rodriguez remains nonchalant: he takes it all in his stride, returning after each tour to his labouring job in Detroit, where his co-workers are most amused to find he is recording artist at all, let alone one with a huge following.

*** spoilers over *** This is a gentle, amusing, poignant tale of a labour of love and the redemption of a man who is big enough not to have been disappointed by his life's trajectory, set against a story so remarkable you'll have trouble believing it to be true. Well recommended." - O. Buxton, Highgate, U.K.

• "The music of the 1960's funk-folk musician known as "Rodriguez" was relatively lost to time, at least in the United States, where it had been relegated to cult status at best by a handful of people like David Holmes Come Get It I Got It: Mixed By David Holmes. This documentary, released in theaters, should finally give Rodriguez his due in the U.S.

The story chronicles his resurrection (both literally and figuratively) in South Africa decades after the fact, where unbeknownst to him he had sold over 500,000 copies of his album even as he worked in obscurity doing construction in Detroit. Not only did he have no idea of his popularity overseas, but he lived an almost homeless like existence while his would be royalties were siphoned away by greedy record execs.

The film is certainly a documentary on Rodriguez (AKA "Sugarman", a reference from one of his songs), and his music, but is more specifically a documentary on several people within the South African record world who try to find out how this "bigger than Elvis" musician truly lived. Rumors had him committing suicide on stage, and they get the shock of their life when they find out that he is actually still alive.

Because of this some have criticized the documentary for being more about this "search" rather than the "man" himself, but I find this unfounded. For one, Rodriguez himself is painfully shy, and it is obvious that there are some things that he made off limits in his interviews (his wife, certain aspects of his family, etc.). While his story is amazing, there is only so much of it he is willing to tell, and to a certain extent only so much of it that was in his control. The overarching story of how much his album helped to end Apartheid in South Africa also must rightly overshadow much of the story. In the end, the director does a nice job balancing the man and the search for the man, his music and its impact on an entire continent. What the music did is more important than the music itself, and the film is not meant to be a lengthy concert video (although you hear enough to be inspired to pick up the soundtrack).

In the end, the truly amazing message is what can happen through a combination of faith and discipline when it intersects with random chance and the dreams of others. Rodriguez is much more a drifting boat on the water than a Captain of his ship, somewhat of an innocent bystander in the outcomes of his own life. The choices he made were done without pursuit of a specific plan other than to live life according to his ethos. But amazing things can happen none the less, an affirming story for all who strive for something and whose efforts seemingly go unnoticed." - an anonymous reviewer on Amazon.com

• This 'story' can never happen again. In our current world of social media (Facebook, Twitter,Google), no person or event can be hidden or stay un-noticed from the public if it is noteworthy. This story goes beyond noteworthy in oh so many ways.

I had the good fortune to help with sound for a performance by Rodriguez a few weeks after the film came out in 2012. Sold out venue (900) in Washington, D.C. What became instantly evident is the man you learn about on the screen is no different from the man off-camera. Since I was working the show, I waited until all the other paying patrons went through the meet and greet line before saying hello and thanks. This took about an hour and a half. Rod actually was apologizing to his fans for having to have them wait so long to shake his hand, grab a hug or a picture. The man is 70. And those hardscrabble 70 years have taken their toll on his body as you will see in the film. He needed assistance getting on to and off the stage for this show. Rodriguez may have helped to topple the racist South African apartheid policies. Yet, at 70, this humble shaman lets you know that he is sorry that you had to hang around soo long to say hello.To today's sports stars and politicos: Take heed and learn your lesson here. In conclusion, the cds are great with very fine songwriting. The film is outstanding. Give this to someone you love." - David Eisner, Takoma Park, MD

• "One of the best documentaries in years. This is a must-see, from the fascinating shots of a decadent Detroit to the lush photos of Cape Town, it's a perfect film all around. This one melds a class analysis, intriguing mystique, and phenomenal music to create an enthralling true story that's touching beyond belief.

The stoic and beautiful daughters and the fellow blue-collar workers add some of the more fascinating insights about a man who was a wandering musical street spirit in the Motor City at the start of massive deindustrialization. His lyrics and rhythm swept through neighborhoods filled with character, troubles, class, wisdom, taste and addictions.

The one depressing thing about this documentary is that it holds up in your face true talent and brilliant music at a time when the contemporary pop scene is so devoid of authenticity and Rodriguez-like subtle emotion, brilliance and genuine skill.

The whole story arc and how everything unfolds is impossible to get over. The daughters are remarkable with their down to earth spot-on analysis of it all.
I know it's a cliche but 'Searching for Sugar Man' really should be viewed by everyone as soon as possible.
(It should be noted that the soundtrack is stunning as well.)"
- Drew Hunkins, Madison, WI