The act of discovering the musician Sixto Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man makes for one of the more humbling experiences you’ll have at the movies.
There is kismet at work here, a story that was just aching to be put to film.
It begins in Detroit where the likes of bar owners, musicians and Motown producers recount the mystery that is simply known as Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter who they listened to in smoky little dive bars back in the late 60′s. He could often be found performing with his back to the crowd, and when he did play straight on, his long black hair would hide part of his face.
Though many of these folks have never met, they share the same bond in having been able to say they stumbled upon a very gifted artist who had clearly “arrived” as a musician. Rodriguez was quickly signed to a two-record deal with Sussex and A&R, which eventually became A&M records.
His first record, “Cold Fact” was released to little fanfare in 1970. The rock and psychedelic-infused folk album only earned glowing reviews among publications like Billboard magazine, but eventually that and his second release, “Coming From Reality” (1971) saw anemic business returns. When asked how many copies the albums had sold, legendary music exec Clarence Avant replies, “In America? Six!”. Shortly thereafter, Rodriguez was dropped from his label and faded into obscurity or death. The story goes that one miserable night on stage, the singer set himself ablaze, yet another rock ‘n roll suicide.
Now our story moves to another hemisphere where Stephen Segerman, an indie record store owner in Cape Town, South Africa, sold Rodriguez albums in the 80′s. “Cold Fact” became a subversive cult hit, with album sales at about half a million, rivaling The Beatles and Elvis Presley. At the height of the anti-apartheid movement, Rodriguez grew a following with his ageless, raceless, timeless music in songs like “I Wonder” and “Crucify Your Mind”. In one scene, we are taken within the country’s huge library stacks of censored material where we are shown that the song “Sugar Man” was long-ago scratched beyond repair because of its references to marijuana and cocaine.
With the advent of the internet, Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul follows Segerman in his quest to find out whatever became of the best-selling star he grew up on. As far as Segerman is concerned, the story goes that Rodriguez, one miserable night on stage, took out a gun and shot himself. But how can that be? Could a tragic event like that possibly go unnoticed? Where’s the evidence? Segerman creates a webpage about his search in the 90′s. A few years pass and then, a comment. Someone close to Rodriguez who has information.
I can reveal no more. Wouldn’t be fair.
The doc navigates back and forth between interviews in America and South Africa, with notables including the aforementioned Avant and Segerman, as well as prominent South African journalist Rian Malan and the likes of soul and R&B guitarist Dennis Coffey, who played with The Temptations and The Supremes.
Transcending the experience from just a talking heads affair is that wonderful Rodriguez-fueled soundtrack thrumming underneath the entire film. Like hearing Aretha Franklin or Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell for the first time, hearing Rodriguez sing the opening of “Cause” gives us the same tingle up our spines that we’re hearing something special: “Cause I lost my job!/Two weeks before Christmas!” he sings, with proud defiance.
What also elevates the proceedings are neat animated segments built into the tapestry of the movie, particularly at the introduction of scenes. Our eyes our kept busy and satiated by cinematographer Camilla Skagerstrom–unfamiliar to me until now–with lush picture-postcard lensing of a dilapidated Detroit, a city that now houses less than a million people for the first time in 5 decades. It’s an industrial wasteland of a landscape she captures, with billows of steam pouring out of manholes and a Motown strip where old signs are rejuvenated in a few shots aching with melancholy and nostalgia for better times.
Discovering a great and long-lost musical talent in Sixto Rodriguez is well enough on its own, but what makes Searching for Sugar Man an inspiring and moving experience is that he appears to be a good man and a gentle spirit who didn’t hunger for fame or attention, which is a stark contrast to a mainstream culture nowadays where folks are desperate to be famous for being famous. The inner peace that is suggested within Rodriguez is a teachable moment testifying to the value of knowing oneself.
This moves straight up the list of the best films of the year.
**** (out of 4)